The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the world and brought many countries to a standstill. The virus has swept through our nations, communities and lives, exploiting gaps in our emergency preparedness, weaknesses in our health systems and inequalities in our societies. It is a human tragedy and a global crisis. As this year ends and we look towards 2021, what have we learned, what have we achieved, and what hope is on the horizon?
A Year in Review: Lessons learned
Experience has now shown us that health is at the centre of development, a determinant of individual and collective growth. At every step of life’s journey, we need targeted, tailored support to promote our health and well-being. Attending school is precious for a child’s social development; providing a social safety net is vital when jobs are threatened; creating supportive environments and quality care offers older people the dignity they deserve.
Responding to the pandemic has required action beyond treating the virus. Insights into human behaviour and cultural norms have been critical to tackle Covid fatigue and misinformation campaigns spread through social media. We have learnt that we needed to engage communities more effectively to be part of the solutions. And that only when measures are scientifically sound and culturally acceptable will they be effective.
To meet varied and complex needs, health systems have had to adjust with unprecedented speed. They established dual track service delivery where essential services were provided in parallel to services focused on pandemic response. Digital solutions have contributed to bridging service gaps when face-to-face services were impossible. These innovations will be crucial to catch-up for missed heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer and other disease-specific services, and to accommodate growing mental health needs.
Science and research have been indispensable in shaping our response – from developing diagnostics, exploring treatment and producing vaccines at unprecedented speed. Old and new technologies have been used to establish the evidence for public health and social measures.
Our health and care workers are cherished professionals, who deserve our unwavering respect and gratitude. They also require adequate social, mental, physical and financial support, to ensure their health and well-being, and to guarantee sustainable, functioning health systems during the pandemic response and beyond. Frontline workers – teachers, social, community and postal workers, bus drivers, grocery and supermarket staff, and many others – who before were invisible and undervalued, have kept our societies running.
We have seen inspiring examples of community solidarity, human ingenuity, collective and individual compassion in every corner of the European Region. People have remarkable resilience, optimism and generosity. This was evidenced in Greece through many moving moments of solidarity: from boy scout groups sending personalized cards to elderly residents of nursing homes, to numerous civil society and volunteer groups putting in valuable time and effort to produce handmade face masks and distribute them in the wider community. The year 2020 has shown us that health is not only an individual concern, but it requires collective effort.
2021 and beyond: leaving no-one behind
We all have a role to play to shape the future we need. This can only be achieved by placing health and equity at the heart of all policies. WHO Europe’s health strategy “United Action for Better Health”, is built upon what citizens expect from their health authorities in order to thrive in healthy communities. For this, we need to guarantee people’s right to universal access to quality care, accelerate action to reduce health inequities and strengthen public health leadership at local, regional, national and international levels. This is an ambitious agenda but one we can achieve together. People increasingly – and rightly – hold their health authorities to account for meeting these expectations and to “leave no-one behind.”
In the wake of Covid-19, it is clear that building strong, sustainable, equitable and responsive health systems is in everybody’s interest. Health is fundamental to ensure both economic development and social cohesion.
There is a wider context to health – from how we produce our food, the way we live in urban settings, the factors that make communities resilient, to what areas our financial systems invest in, and the value we place on those who provide essential services. The pandemic has forced us recognize and reassess these issues.
To lead us in a new direction, WHO/Europe has brought together expert and political voices. The Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development comprises experts from a range of fields including former heads of state and government, distinguished life scientists and economists, heads of health and social care institutions, and leaders of the business community and financial institutions. The Commission is looking forwards, through the impact of the pandemic, to changes that are needed in society, with a view to elevating health to the top of the political agenda. It will offer guidance on how to invest in health, health systems and social care systems for the benefit of all sectors.
2020 has taught us that health is not something we can take for granted, and healthcare is only truly effective and protective if everyone has access. If we want to protect ourselves from future crises, we must leave no one behind.
In 2020 Covid19 upturned everything that we thought was normal. It was a year that has tested everyone. Let us remember 2020 through the acts of courage, optimism and generosity by frontline workers everywhere. Let us meet 2021 with optimism and hope driven by the knowledge that our response is scientifically driven and has strong community engagement.
And let us look forward to a time soon when we can come together with our family and friends to celebrate all the big and small things in life.
Dr Marianna Trias is the WHO Representative to Greece and Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge is the WHO Regional Director for Europe.