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COVID-19 debate: What lessons can Europe learn from the pandemic?

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By Euronews
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Euronews will host a debate on COVID-19
Euronews will host a debate on COVID-19   -   Copyright  Euronews

It's been more than two years since the COVID-19 pandemic upended society as we know it, forcing governments to rethink the importance of health policy.

While the virus is still present, much of the world has tried to move on, even as infections and hospitalisations continue to rise and fall.

Europe quickly became one of the early epicentres of the pandemic in 2020, with Italy the second country to implement strict lockdown measures after China, and so the European Union took centre-stage to help member states with the fallout.

But the bloc also faced criticism over member states' unilateral actions to close borders and the EU's early struggle in the vaccine rollout.

So what can we learn from these past years of living with COVID-19 and how can that help us to be healthier in the future?

These are the key questions that Euronews addressed in a debate on 29th June in association with the European Health Parliament initiative entitled European Health Policy – recommendations for a healthier future.

Alongside guests from European institutions and civil society, we looked at the lessons learned from the pandemic and the challenges of transforming the healthcare system for the better.

Watch the debate in the video player above.

What is the current situation?

Sandra Gallina, director-general of health and food safety at the European Commission, told Euronews that the current situation is "under control" but that "we need to start learning to live with COVID."

"This is what we have not learned yet so for me these days are a bit groundhog days because we had last summer the same situation," she told Euronews at the debate.

"Angst about COVID will not give us good results but responsibility and attention will," Gallina added.

Tomislav Sokol, a member of the European Parliament, said that even though the new strain of the virus is more infectious, health systems are not under as much pressure as they were before.

"We have to take into account all of the factors and all of the objectives, so also the fact that we need to maintain the economy, we need to maintain the value chains, supply of critical goods and materials," he said, adding that closures were not an option.

Anca Toma, Executive Director of the European Patients Forum (EPF), an independent non-profit, said that the "situation feels critical but stable, which is the first step towards improvement."

She said that clearly the vaccine has worked and social distancing measures have stuck.

"We are in a point now where we are feeling ready to live with this for a very long time," Toma added.

Lessons learned

Tomislav Sokol, a member of the European Parliament, said that the first lesson from COVID-19 was that Europe needs a common health policy.

"This was proven in the first months when we didn't have a common European response, we had border closures, export restrictions, lack of medical equipment etc. So to prevent this from happening we need more coordination," he said, adding that there needed to be a stronger institutional framework as well.

COVID-19 also had a large impact on mental health and other illnesses.

In the first year of the pandemic, for instance, the prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25%, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

One of the major factors, the WHO said, was the increase in stress due to social isolation during multiple lockdowns across the world. Young people were among the worst impacted by the stress of the pandemic.

The disease also caused disruptions in health services for other illnesses -- putting a spotlight on overstretched health systems across Europe.

Toma said that the European Patients' Forum surveyed its members and found that 95% of respondents had some kind of challenge due to the COVID-19 pandemic including stress, anxiety or discontinuation of treatment.

"The mental health impact is something that we really need to focus on, we really need to look at, because there is a collective trauma from this," Toma said.

Going too far with restrictions, Sokol added, you have "countereffects in terms of other diseases, mental health problems...delays in people getting diagnoses for non-communicable diseases."

Looking ahead

"From the first waves we have learned how to be prepared against the emergency but now we need to go beyond that, transition out of the emergency and build resilient public health systems," Gallina said at the Euronews debate.

The Commission aims to create a European Health Dataspace (EHDS) to share important health information between member states.

They say it will allow citizens to better access their health information and will save money for the bloc.

"When the COVID-19 pandemic happened we were not as prepared as we would have because we didn't have a lot of information about the new disease," explained Eleonora Varntoumian, president of the seventh edition of the European Health Parliament (EHP).

She added that it takes time to educate the public but that healthcare workers are investing more time in digital skills.

"This wouldn't be possible without the experience that we have gained and we can leverage on that because Europe has so much to offer in this area," she added.

"Health data are very sensitive, are more sensitive than even normal data," Gallina said, adding that data sharing will save lives. "It's about the roaming of health," she said.

Kyle Green/AP Photo
Jack Kingsley R.N. attends to a COVID-19 patient in the Medical Intensive care unit (MICU) at St. Luke's Boise Medical Center in Boise, Idaho:Kyle Green/AP Photo

Panellists

Here's a look at the panellists who joined the debate moderated by Euronews' Stefan Grobe.

Sandra Gallina

Gallina is the Director-General of the European Commission's Directorate-General of Health and Food Security (DG SANTE). Gallina oversees the EU's policies on food safety and health and the implementation of all related laws.

Under her leadership, the European Commission spearheaded the joint procurement of COVID-19 vaccines, established the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response (HERA) and launched the new EU4Health programme, set to run from 2021 until 2027.

Tomislav Sokol

Sokol is a Member of the European Parliament from Croatia who belongs to the European People's Party (EPP).

Sokol sits with the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) and the Special Committee on the COVID-19 pandemic: lessons learned and recommendations for the future (COVI).

Since entering the parliament in 2019, Sokol has been deeply involved in EU health policy and has advocated for the use of cohesion funds as a tool to address healthcare disparities across the bloc.

Anca Toma

Toma is the Executive Director of the European Patients Forum (EPF), an independent non-profit, non-governmental umbrella organisation that includes 77 patient organisations at EU and national level.

Toma has over 15 years of experience in European health policy working in policy advocacy, strategic communications, and developing successful pan-European advocacy campaigns.

Eleonora Varntoumian

Varntoumian is the President of the seventh edition of the European Health Parliament (EHP) and a senior policy officer at the European Cancer Patient Coalition (ECPC).

Varntoumian has been working for the past four years in oncology, a career path she took up after losing several family members to cancer. Varntoumian is also a board member at the Institute of Cancer & Crisis and Advisory Council member in Jourdan-Saint Pierre in Etterbeek-Brussels.