With over 4 million COVID-19 cases around the world and close to 300,000 deaths, the health impacts of the current crisis are unlike anything we have seen for decades. In Europe, as in other parts of the world, the virus continues to test the capacity of our health systems and has shown just how important health is across policy areas. In addition to demonstrating the need for increased public health funding and better cross-border coordination, the virus has also highlighted the deep interconnectedness of our national and EU-wide policies and how this influences our health and wellbeing in Europe.

A closer look at the European Commission’s current priorities shows how interlinked health is with other policy areas. Time to rethink our approach to policymaking in Europe!

A European Green Deal for fresh air and a healthy lifestyle

The WHO has estimated that air pollution kills close to seven million people worldwide every year. Fossil fuel pollution is associated with increased hospitalisations and deaths from cardiovascular diseases, as well as with severe asthma and other respiratory problems.

As travel by car, train and air has all but nearly stopped due to the current pandemic, entire countries are experimenting with new ways of operating, including in transport. All over Europe, remote and online work has replaced daily commuting and travel, which has led to significantly healthier air. Satellite data has even shown how levels of nitrogen dioxide, an air pollutant released by vehicles, power plants and industrial facilities, have plummeted due to the closing of factories and businesses. Healthier air can reduce respiratory and irritation symptoms, such as shortness of breath and cough, reduce hospitalisations, clinical visits, premature births, and all-cause mortality could decrease significantly. The improvements we are currently witnessing might be caused by a tragic situation, but they are also a timely reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo, and the opportunities that can be unlocked by challenging some aspects of it.

An economy that works for people by strengthening healthcare systems

While the pandemic is first and foremost a health crisis, it is also a severe economic one. It goes without saying that economic decline itself has an adverse effect on health.

Direct negative health effects are already showing, including mental and psychosocial ones, and in particular among the elderly, those living alone or those already dealing with mental or physical illness. This situation will be further exacerbated by the looming economic decline as reduced economic activity will lead to a downward cycle effectively reducing finances available for public health spending. This will most certainly result in a lack of capacity, system shortages and rising levels of unmet need, similar to what we witnessed in 2008/9. What we need now is a holistic strategy which recovers the economic and social costs of COVID-19 while boosting more sustainable health systems across the continent.

A digital Europe fit for the wellbeing of its citizens

The current crisis has made it more obvious than ever that resilient data-sharing systems for large-scale near real-time analysis in healthcare is crucial.

An unprecedented global pandemic demands an appropriate response. In a way, COVID-19 has achieved what many thought might never come: a real push in digital health. As teleservices and talk about coronavirus-apps have entered into Europe’s living rooms and family zoom chats, digital health services are suddenly much more than a great potential to tap into. The current, necessary debate on data safety and privacy concerns has the power to transform European health strategies into more sustainable, accessible and pragmatic versions which can reach young and old, rich and poor, healthy and unhealthy, no matter where they are located.

A more equal European way of life in health

Like any crisis, the current pandemic has a way of unmasking as well as escalating the existing health inequalities that the EU is continuously seeking to reduce through its policies.

In fact, evidence is emerging that there are inequalities in the number of COVID-19 related deaths, based on already existing socioeconomic and ethnic inequalities. Blue-collar workers and occupations which involve close contact with others are more exposed to the virus and therefore more vulnerable than others. Research from the UK even shows that people living in the poorest parts of the country are dying from the virus at nearly double the rate of people in wealthier areas. It is crucial to address these health inequalities at both the national as well as the EU level. Europe-wide coordination can help counter such trends by providing the opportunity to learn from each other through exchanging experiences and data and by ensuring consistency in approaches.

Under this priority is also the upcoming and much-awaited roadmap for a new Pharmaceutical Strategy, with which we know the Commission wants to touch core issues and essentially re-open all files related to the pharmaceutical industry. The roadmap, expected in the next few weeks, will pave the way for the planned pharmaceutical strategy now due at the end of July. It is expected that the strategy will include a review of the Orphan and Paediatric Regulation, legislation on fees for the European Medicines Agency (EMA), as well as the basic pharmaceutical legislation. It should also include non-legislative action such as a plan on shortages. The strategy’s ultimate objective is to help ensure that Europe provides safe and affordable medicines to meet patients’ needs, thereby seeking to reduce health inequalities, and support the European pharmaceutical industry’s innovation efforts in the EU and globally.

A stronger Europe for the health of people worldwide

Finally, if we are to learn anything from COVID-19, it is simply how interconnected the world is and that a global problem requires a fast and coordinated global response, which in turn requires cooperation across sectors.

The EU can learn from this experience and build on it by integrating more intersectoral thinking into its policies. A fresh domestic approach in combination with a strong international leadership role will indeed make Europe stronger with the potential to set an example at global level.

Towards a more holistic policy approach

A more holistic approach to EU policymaking is long overdue. As countries and regions consider the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for economies and citizens, opportunities arise to challenge the status quo, invoke positive change and meaningfully improve health and wellbeing for all.

At Incisive Health we look forward to continuing our work with policymakers and stakeholders in order to make a difference in health policy – in Europe and globally. Industry has proven to be a much-needed partner and an essential part of the solution in dealing with the current pandemic and we are keen to help clients think about how they can play an even more constructive role in shaping policies for a better future.