Zoltán Massay-Kosubek

The incubation time is soon over! Living in Brussels is like sitting on the new coronavirus time bomb: every road goes to the EU capital and the COVID-19 infection is most likely here already. The epidemic reached all continents and became the number one health challenge being permanently present on the front pages of newspapers. Being active in the European public health policy field makes me think: what is the EU added value in this crisis? What is the European contribution globally? And what potential does the COVID-19 case have for the EU on other cross border health challenges?

The EU has a clear mandate on Health Security

The EU has a shared competence on cross-border health threats such as the new coronavirus epidemic. This includes both technical and political actions and the EU has mobilised its resources in various ways.

As knowledge sharing and effective coordination is vital for managing the situation, the relevant units within the Commission are in permanent contact with national authorities. The European Health Security Committee has regular meetings on COVID-19.

The EU is a knowledge hub and collects expertise. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is a reference point for the latest, up-to-date situation of the coronavirus outbreak as well as source of trusted advise and technical help.

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides became the frontrunner and the public face of the EU vis-a-vis the COVID-19 epidemic: she briefed Health Ministers about the latest developments and visited recently Italy with her team to bring expertise and show support.

The World Health Organization is at the center of the global efforts – with European support

The WHO is the forum where the global actions against the disease are to be coordinated and the EU provides significant political, financial and technical support to this fight. The stronger WHO is the more likely the crisis will be solved. Italy and Europe is one of the WHO regions affected by the coronavirus and the WHO Europe region is involved in the actions. It is Europe’s best interest to collaborate globally and cooperation with WHO is the natural choice. Altogether, the EU engagment with WHO has the potential to strengthen actions on other, cross border health challenges, too.

Coronavirus – a case study for cross border health challenges

One of the reasons of having a European health policy is to have a common, coordinated, supported European answer to cross-border health challenges such as communicable disease epidemics like the new coronavirus outbreak.

Nevertheless, looking at the numbers and fatalities, although every single life matters, there are other, even more serious cross border health challenges in Europe which would deserve attention, too:

Antimicrobial Resistance is a very similar health threat, being responbible for 33.000 deaths annually and causing 1.5 billion € yearly healthcare costs and productivity losses in Europe

Air pollution remains the largest environmental health risk in Europe, an involuntary and inescapable exposure to this risk, affecting 100% of the population from cradle to grave. Diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015 – 16% of all deaths worldwide, three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence.

Non-Communicable Diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory diseases and diabetes, undermine people’s health and well-being, threaten the sustainability of health systems and Europe’s economic and social prosperity. Over half a million people under the age of 65 die of NCDs in the EU each year, while up to 80% of healthcare spending goes towards treating chronic diseases.

Lessons learned from the novel coronavirus outbreak

Health is at the top of people’s concern. Europe suffers from all the consequences of the recent epidemic, which impacted our everyday life already: people are engaging with information sources and with each other, they follow intensively the developments and take individual and collective protective measures.

The new coronavirus makes the media headlines. This clearly demonstrates the power of media: such a huge pressure around a health issue contributed to the fact that the new coronavirus is now a top priority at political, economic and societal level worldwide.

United we win, divided we fall. No single country, even the mightiest ones can tackle alone such a challenge. The cross border nature of the disease obliges national authorities to cooperate. Easy to understand that without central coordiantion, even cooperation is less effective – and here comes the EU with its global health leadership.

Towards a new EU health policy?

The new coronavirus pandemic is the most visible health challenge the EU faces in early 2020. But is it the most serious one? The EU has demonstrated Global health leadership on COVID-19 already. Will it do the same for other cross border health challenges?

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