A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic and after numerous parliamentary debates, several EU summits, the struggles to coordinate measures, as well as countless promises and announcements on the future of health in Europe, it is now time for a critical and honest assessment.
Worldwide, almost four million people have died since the beginning of the outbreak. Europe accounts for approximately a quarter of these cases. A recent report published by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR) condemned the fact that global measures at the beginning of the pandemic came too late.
The WHO wasn’t quick enough in warning of person-to-person transmission, was too slow to declare a public health emergency of international concern and too reluctant on pressing for international travel restrictions.
Of course, it is always easier to judge in hindsight. Additionally, while the IPPPR’s conclusions on missed timings are clear, it wasn’t just the WHO, but national governments, who were reluctant in taking far-reaching measures to contain the spread of the virus.
The EU’s recent assessment of its own measures is full of self-praise, and while the conclusions on the necessary measures in the European Commission’s Communication are reasonable and right, the main obstacle remains in place: EU Member States are not interested in a real European Health Union and prefer to keep as many competencies as possible for themselves.
When the pandemic gained pace in the spring of 2020, EU Member States were quick in closing their borders and taking unilateral, uncoordinated measures. The reality of a borderless, integrated European Union was simply ignored, exacerbating the crisis by breaking supply chains and restricting the movement of cross-border workers.
This approach to containing the virus resembled a patchwork of measures and uncoordinated ping-pong lockdowns. It took almost a year until a common colour coded system was finally introduced and Member States committed to submitting their data to the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), a previously notoriously underfunded agency.
"When the pandemic gained pace in the spring of 2020, EU Member States were quick in closing their borders and taking unilateral, uncoordinated measures. The reality of a borderless, integrated European Union was simply ignored, exacerbating the crisis by breaking supply chains and restricting the movement of cross-border workers"
More than 18 months after the pandemic began common rules for travel inside and from outside the EU have finally been put in place, facilitated by the introduction of COVID-19 Certificates. However, there are already disagreements between Member States on how to respond to areas with high numbers of the worrying and highly contagious Delta variant. In fact, many of the mistakes and carelessness of the last year are poised to be repeated.
The measures, announced by the Commission in its mid-June Communication, are urgently needed. We need a real European Health Union, the strengthening of the European Medicine Agency (EMA) and the ECDC, as well as the establishment of a European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA).
In addition, ensuring domestic production and safe supply chains continue to be a top priority. This was not only obvious at the beginning of the pandemic, but also later, when a lack of components and ingredients caused a slowdown in vaccine production and distribution.
However, mid-June’s informal deal on the EU’s Health Technology Assessment is a foretaste for the negotiations yet to come. Three years after the initial discussions, and all the way through the pandemic, Member States still primarily focused on their own priorities and needs rather than solidarity on common drug pricing.
The pandemic has highlighted the urgency of a much needed European Health Union by revealing its worst shortcomings. Nevertheless, other health hazards have been around for much longer without being efficiently addressed.
Air pollution and toxic substances such as pesticides and endocrine disruptors are still threatening the health of Europeans. The Commission’s Beating Cancer strategy rightly introduced new limit values and policies, but the main problem lies with their enforcement.
"Environmental and climate protection is also health protection. Thus, for a European Health Union, as well as for delivering climate neutrality, we need the comprehensive mainstreaming of health, climate and the environment in all policy initiatives"
All too regularly, the European Court of Justice has to rule against Member States for breaching the EU’s Air Quality Directive and other environmental laws that not only address nature destruction, but are directly correlated to human health.
The European Environmental Agency estimates that there are 400,000 premature deaths from air pollution every year. The burning of fossil fuels and cars running with diesel or gasoline are adversely affecting the wellbeing of Europeans.
Therefore, environmental and climate protection is also health protection. Thus, for a European Health Union, as well as for delivering climate neutrality, we need the comprehensive mainstreaming of health, climate and the environment in all policy initiatives.
In the spring of 2020, I called for a special committee on COVID-19 to systematically analyse responses and develop lessons learned without finger-pointing or blame. The European Parliament has the unique ability to deliver views and experiences from all over Europe though its 705 elected representatives.
This comprehensive and Europe-wide expertise gives the Parliament a significant counterweight in the coming negotiations on EU health-related policy measures. At the end of the day, there is just one simple goal: Healthy European citizens and a better-prepared European Union.