Beginning with a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, China, this novel coronavirus has spread with alarming speed, shaking the foundations of health systems, economies, and societies around the world. European countries are among the most heavily affected. At the time of writing, five of the six most-affected countries are in Europe.
And yet, even as Europe is fighting to bring COVID-19 under control at home, it is also playing a leading role in building global solidarity. Even as we are physically distancing as individuals, we need to pull together collectively as actors on the world stage.
The European Union and WHO share a commitment to supporting vulnerable communities and countries around the world. Standing together as a global community is particularly crucial now, because we are all in this together as the disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. As long as it affects some of us, none of us is safe.
To support the global response to COVID-19, the European Union and its Member States recently put forward a Team Europe package, which is growing to be well over €23 billion. Of course, Team Europe will be delivering parts of its response to the coronavirus pandemic with the United Nations.
Like in so many crises, the most vulnerable suffer the most, and they must be our focus. The EU is supporting the WHO Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan with €30 million in new funding to strengthen emergency preparedness and response in countries with weak health systems or which are affected by humanitarian crises.
In addition, the European Commission, WHO, and partners from around the globe have also teamed up to launch ‘The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator’, to speed up the development, production and equitable distribution of vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics for COVID-19, so that all people have equitable access to these lifesaving products.
Building on this historic commitment, the European Commission hosted a pledging event on 4 May at which more than 40 countries came together to pledge some €7.4 billion to support research and development for vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.
But our partnership extends well beyond the current crisis. The pandemic exploits the gaps and inequalities in health systems, underscoring the importance of investing in health workers, health infrastructure and systems to prevent, detect and respond to disease outbreaks.
Strong health systems are the best prevention not only against outbreaks and pandemics, but also against the multiple health threats people around the world face every day.
And yet, on current trends, more than 5 billion people will lack access to essential health services by 2030 – including the ability to see a health worker, access to essential medicines, and running water in hospitals. Even when services are available, using them can mean financial ruin for millions of people.
These gaps don’t only undermine the health of individuals, families and communities; they also undermine global security and economic growth.
That is why the EU has contributed €102 million to the Universal Health Coverage Partnership with WHO, supporting health system strengthening in 115 countries in Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific, Eastern Europe, and Central and South East Asia. The world spends around US$7.5 trillion on health each year – almost 10 percent of global GDP.
But too many countries spend too much of their health budget on managing diseases in hospitals – where the costs are higher and the outcomes are often worse – instead of promoting health and preventing disease at the primary health care level. The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually recede, but there can be no going back to business as usual.
As we work on responding to this pandemic, we must also prepare for the next one. Now is an opportunity to lay the foundations for resilient health systems around the world.
Investments to strengthen health infrastructure and workforce are the only way to avoid future global health crises like the one we are facing now.
If we learn anything from COVID-19, it must be that investing in health now will save lives later. History will judge us not only on whether we got through this pandemic, but on the lessons we learned and the actions we took once it was over.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is Director-General of the World Health Organization
Jutta Urpilainen is Commissioner for International Partnerships of the European Commission