The Covid-19 pandemic has become the generational public health crisis we all feared. A crisis that has changed all aspects of life. Over the past nine months, we have witnessed unbearable human suffering, with over a million people having tragically lost their lives. This is not a statistic. Behind each number is a unique story, and a family mourning the loss of a loved one. Our economies have been devastated by the consequences of the crisis, with countless citizens losing their jobs, and individuals and families being forced to close the businesses they spent years building. It has been a very difficult few months for people and countries across the globe, and nobody has been left unaffected.
Our sense of resilience and solidarity
Despite these difficult circumstances through the darkness of the first phase of the pandemic, there have been a number of beacons of light. Our healthcare systems have been put under extraordinary pressure, and we continue to pay tribute to our heroic frontline healthcare workers, who put themselves at risk every day to save lives and protect us all. Despite some uncertain times, EU Member States have come together to solve the most pressing issues, such as making sure our hospitals have adequate supplies of essential equipment and medicines, and exceptional economic support measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on our economies and societies.
The EU has also been leading efforts to secure access to, and equal distribution of, safe and effective diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to citizens and countries across the globe. It has been through these difficult times that our core European values have shone the brightest, which are our shared sense of resilience, togetherness, and above all, solidarity. Citizens have been asked to make tremendous personal sacrifices to protect each other, and Member States have come together in an unprecedented manner to tackle the pandemic. This is the way we will overcome this multifaceted global crisis: as a European Union, in union.
We are still very much in the middle of the pandemic, and there will be many lessons to draw from it over many years. The foreseeable future is uncertain; however, this does not mean that we cannot already begin to plan for the post-coronavirus world. Out of crisis often comes opportunity. This is a once in a lifetime chance for Europe to come closer together than ever before and emerge as a stronger Union.
More Europe in the area of public health
In the area of health, this means putting in place the building blocks of a European Health Union. We have seen during the initial phase of the crisis that the EU has managed to support Member States in an unprecedented manner, despite not having full competences. But this is not about treaties, or institutions. It is about people. About lives and livelihoods.
When Member States closed their internal borders and imposed export bans that put the circulation and availability of vital medical and protective equipment, medicinal products and other essential goods at risk, we worked very closely with them to remove these restrictions. We also implemented the “Green Lanes”, which improved the flow of these essential goods across borders. When they had shortages of vital medical and personal protective equipment, we worked with our industrial partners to secure the increased production of masks, gloves, tests and ventilators through joint procurements. Through our Civil Protection Mechanism, we repatriated over 600,000 EU citizens, and ensured that Member States could assist each other and our neighbours.
Building a stronger European Health Union
This is not a Union without competence. It is the Union of solidarity, action, and clear value to the lives of its citizens. Our citizens turned towards Europe in the darkest months of the crisis, asking for more Europe in the area of public health.
Setting in motion a stronger European Health Union is not a short-term sprint, but a marathon that will consist of several steps over a prolonged period of time: building incrementally, pooling resources, sharing expertise and facing threats together. It is fragmentation that makes us all collectively more vulnerable.
Funding: To do this, we must make sure that over the next several years, we have the necessary funding in place to fulfil these ambitions, address today’s challenges and embrace tomorrow’s opportunities. We will aim to achieve this with the new, standalone, long-term EU4Health Programme that we proposed in May this year. The programme aims at better preparing Europe to react and protect its citizens for cross border health threats in the future. It will for example strengthen national health systems, preparedness exercises and the upskilling of medical, healthcare and public health staff. It also will facilitate the One-Health approach covering antimicrobial resistance and immunisation.
Specialised agencies: The next step is to reinforce our specialised agencies and empower them with a stronger mandate in terms of crisis preparedness and management for future crises. In November, we will put forward proposals to strengthen the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the European Medicines Agency. Their invaluable work, expertise and knowledge is the foundation on which our work throughout this crisis has been built. Now is the time to make them even stronger and more capable of tackling common threats Europe faces. A European BARDA will be developed to add foresight, common planning and joint procurement for medical products our citizens need – much as we did with the European vaccines strategy.
Modern healthcare systems: However, building a stronger European Health Union extends far beyond crisis management. It is also about building the healthcare systems of tomorrow by making them more resilient and sustainable, and enabling them to deliver better care for patients across the EU. This means having the robustness, resilience and the resources to truly make a difference on many of our health priorities, such as tackling antimicrobial resistance, accelerating the use of digital technologies in the provision of healthcare, and strengthening important existing tools such as our European Reference Networks to improve diagnosis and treatments of rare diseases.
Beating cancer: With the EU4Health Programme, we will also strive to deliver Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan in order to improve access to diagnosis and screening, treatment and care for millions of cancer patients, while reducing inequalities across Europe. We want to be able to support and give hope to patients and their families at every step of their journey.
Pharmaceutical strategy: In addition, our new Pharmaceutical Strategy coming later this year is an opportunity for us to ensure and reinforce the strategic autonomy of our pharmaceutical sector and ensure access and affordability of essential medicines for our citizens.
Learning the lessons of today’s challenges
In the end, this is what building a stronger European Health Union means: learning the lessons of today’s challenges and using the means at our disposal to build on tomorrow’s opportunities. Solidarity first. The Union and our citizens’ health first.
The pandemic has made us at least ask ourselves, is there enough Europe in the area of public health? Do we need more? We can be certain of one thing: we are stronger when we work together. The crisis has given us a unique opportunity to build a more resilient Union, with the protection of our citizens’ health at its core. We have the vision and the plan; it is now up to us to make it a reality.