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Opinion: COVID-19 is the defining health crisis of our time

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus | Jutta Urpilainen
May 16, 2020

The coronavirus has spread with alarming speed, shaking the foundations of health systems, economies, and societies around the world, writes the WHO's Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and EU Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen.

Sars-CoV-2 Illustration
Image: AFP/National Institutes of Health

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 the World Health Organization (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 ($25 billion). Of course, Team Europe will be delivering parts of its response to the coronavirus pandemic with the United Nations.

Helping the weakest

The Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
The WHO's Tedros Adhanom GhebreyesusImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Trezzini

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.

But our partnership extends well beyond the current crisis.

Read more"Dr. Tedros" – The man at the helm of the WHO

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.

EU Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen
Jutta Urpilainen, the EU Commissioner for International PartnershipsImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Thys

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.

Read moreCoronavirus in Africa: How deadly could COVID-19 become?

The world spends around US$7.5 trillion (€7 trillion) on health each year — almost 10% of global GDP.

Be prepared

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 healthcare 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.

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Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the Director-General of the World Health Organization. Jutta Urpilainen is the Commissioner for International Partnerships at the European Commission.

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