At European Health Forum, leaders call for a reboot of post-pandemic health systems


The annual European Health Forum, Gastein, opened today with calls for an overhaul of health systems following the Covid-19 pandemic.

National health systems need a major overhaul, making well-being a bigger health priority so that countries can “build back better” in the wake of the pandemic, said global health leaders at the opening of this year’s European Health Forum, Gastein.

While some countries are still pursuing models for economic wealth that ignore critical priorities for health and environmental sustainability, the pandemic has still been a wake-up call for many global leaders, said speakers at the opening plenary of this year’s forum.

“Investing in health is...a preliminary condition to any economic growth,” said Sandra Gallina, deputy director-general of the European Commission for health and food safety. “We may be fighting with the recovery and the economic evils that this crisis has brought for as long as we have not tamed the virus.”

Why is this important? The Forum, an important venue for Europe’s global health movers and shakers to meet and dialogue, usually takes place in the secluded Alpine spa town of Bad-Gastein, Austria. This year, as a result of the pandemic, it is taking place digitally, and the discussions have even greater potential impact as Europe recoups from the biggest setbacks to its health system in a century.

“Political leaders are reaching for policy actions that even six months ago would have been dismissed as naive or unrealistic, we do stand at this crossroads,” said Katherine Trebeck, of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance.

On the one hand, “the pressure to return to business as usual is profound,” she acknowledged, adding, “the alternative is to build a wellbeing economy, one that has social justice, a healthy planet, its core.

“We’re seeing poll after poll after poll reinforcing this message that what the public – both in Europe and the UK – want to see post-pandemic is an economic system that prioritises health and wellbeing rather than GDP growth.”

World Health Organisation’s (WHO) regional director Hans Kluge laid out the key lessons to be learned from the pandemic at a press conference on the Forum’s opening day, saying:  “Strong health systems based on people-centred private health care means strong national health security, and the health workforce really needs to be appreciated.”

He also stressed the need for solidarity between countries in pushing back the virus, and said the pandemic had led to a greater awareness of “the reciprocal relationship between health and the economy.”

Kluge’s remarks were echoed by Maggie de Block, minister of social affairs, public health, and asylum and migration for Belgium. She said the virus had proven how easily social and economic systems can be compromised by a threat to health. “We have been taking health for granted for many years,” she said. “We have to learn the lesson that...not only GDP is important in people’s lives.”

In the course of the pandemic, the structural weaknesses of European health systems were laid bare as countries visibly struggled to assemble emergency stocks of both simple protective gear as well as more complex, intensive care equipment, the regional and national health leaders in attendance acknowledged. They stressed the need for universal health coverage to close access gaps, which exist even in Europe’s relatively affluent economies.

The need for greater investment in health to eliminate access gaps was underlined by Maja Fjaestad, state secretary for Sweden's ministry of health and social affairs:

“Investing in public health is investing in society,” she said. “When we look at which groups have been affected the hardest by Covid-19, it's definitely the group with the lowest public health.”

“We've known all this time that we have unequal public health and we need to invest in that now. Investing in public health will be good for the economy, it will be good for society, it will be good for sustainable development. ”

Mental health needs win new recognition. Speakers also drew attention to the need to prioritise mental health, and how the pandemic has led to a new appreciation for health and social care workers.

“This crisis has made us aware of the collective nature of health, and the collective nature of many of the things that we need to operate as a society,” said Colin Crouch of the Max Planck Institute.

“The pandemic gives us a chance to rediscover the evils of inequality and the need for shared collective action…It is a moment within individual countries and within Europe to seize the agenda for social purposes again, ”he added.

From 30 September - 2 October, the EHFG will be hosting virtual panel events and workshops inviting government representatives and health experts to discuss how countries can rebuild and reform health systems following the pandemic.