'Lessons need to be learned': WHO calls for joint European pandemic response

'Lessons need to be learned': WHO calls for joint European pandemic response
Credit: Hatim Kaghat/Belga

In a recent report, the World Health Organisation (WHO) criticised the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic across Europe and has stressed lessons must be learned to avoid another pandemic and a similar economic fallout.

The WHO argued that the region was not prepared for the pandemic, despite various warnings, and that its failure to respond to and contain the impacts of Covid-19, as well as the over 1.2 million deaths in Europe, were a result of the fractured health and social care policies across the region.

"We can’t allow another pandemic to bring the world to its knees and must do everything in our power to prevent a catastrophe on the same scale from happening again," said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, stressing that "we must learn from our mistakes, for we cannot afford to make them again."

As a result, the Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development, an independent panel of experts and scientists, compiled a report on the region's response to the pandemic, in which it called for actions at all levels of society and across the whole region, to improve regional and global health governance.

"Our main challenge has not been identifying strategies for success – we know what we need to do – but our collective inability to implement them effectively," Dr Kluge, who convened the group, said.

"A significant obstacle has been reluctance on the part of governments to share decision-making powers or to agree on shared governance arrangements for the benefit of all," he added.

Professor Mario Monti, Chair of the Commission, described the COVID-19 pandemic as a “monumental and unsolicited stress test”, which the world failed. 

“We can be in no doubt that our political, economic and social systems have catastrophically failed to manage the defining crisis of our time. Countries were stuck looking on their doorsteps, seeking to solve transnational problems with outdated national solutions," he added.

Joint action

In the report, the experts call for stronger cooperation between all European countries, and at all levels, whilst stressing that crisis management should be more streamlined throughout the European region and a strong crisis plan should be worked on.

Aside from being prepared for future pandemics, which the experts say will happen, countries have been called on to redesign the current health and social care policies, which "have contributed to high levels of wealth and income inequality, underinvestment in social protection, racism, and other forms of discrimination."

"The pandemic has also clearly demonstrated that the existing model of innovation in health – where most of the risk is borne by the public sector and most of the returns flow to private companies – is flawed and not fit for purpose," the WHO press release stated.

Governments have been called on to monitor and solve health inequality, and to address long-standing funding gaps in primary health care, mental health care and social care while investing in and protecting the health workforce.

The Commission also urged the region to design a new strategy for health and sustainable development based on the One Health concept, and on lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to Professor Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and report author, this is the most important recommendation in the report.

This concept recognises the interconnection between people, animals, plants and their shared environment, and that when one part is at risk, the others are also in danger, the organisation stressed, pointing to deforestation and international travel as elements facilitating the emergence and global spread of the virus.

It should also engage national governments, regional and global actors, as well as health and social care system managers in far-reaching reforms, investment programmes and governance improvements.

Finally, the panel of experts also called on the creation of a Pan-European Council on Health Threats, which should provide more political support to avoid the coordination and policy problems experienced during the current pandemic.

The preparedness and response to the pandemic differed from country to country, meaning that lessons will also at times be country-specific. In some countries evaluations and audits of the response and decision-making during the corona virus crisis have already been carried out - in other countries they have been postponed because of the evolving crisis.

Asked by The Brussels Times if the final report draws on findings and recommendations in such national reports, Professor Mckee replied that this is very much the case, if they are available. “All reports have been taken into account, in particular those by parliaments and civil society organisations.”

Besides the importance of technical capacity to cope with a pandemic, he highlighted three crucial factors in the response: political leadership capable of taking real-time decisions in a quickly evolving crisis, the health infrastructure in place, and the existence of a resilient social network.

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