Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. The focus on public health since the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a wave of new opportunities to strengthen health and wellbeing. The pandemic demonstrated the value of health to well-functioning and thriving societies. We saw the establishment of a European Health Union for better pandemic preparedness, a new European Care Strategy to boost quality of care, a 10-fold increase of the EU health programme and an ambitious new Recovery and Resilience Fund to facilitate reform in Member States.
Unlocking the potential
There is great potential for these initiatives, albeit well implemented in Member States, to impact positively on the health and wellbeing of Europeans. However, a more detailed look shows that these initiatives may not necessarily lead to the systemic change that is required for sustainable impact, as evidenced for example by our analysis of the Recovery and Resilience Facility. They understandably focus on the urgency of current crises - like the shrinking workforce in health and social sectors, the poor working conditions for carers, the high costs of energy and food insecurity. However, most solutions do not go beyond the immediate crisis, and do not tackle the underlying, interconnected challenges that we face.
For example, the European Union appears to be delaying stricter legislation on the use of pesticides for reasons of food insecurity, which adversely affect biodiversity and eventually our health as well. Investments in social and health services, such as improving long-term care of older people are vital, but not sustainable if we do not also heavily invest in healthy ageing. Equally, combatting poverty may deliver more health benefits than investing in new hospitals or specialists’ treatment. Chronic diseases disproportionately affect the poor, and by improving healthy living and working conditions, these diseases can be preventable. Strengthening mental health promotion and services also prevent other health and social problems from occurring.
An opportunity for change
Times of crisis are an opportunity for change for health and wellbeing if we develop a stronger collective vision of the kinds of societies that we would like to transition towards, rather than simply ‘reacting' to immediate problems. Such vision should be based on ‘systems thinking’ considering the interrelation and interdependencies of policies and actions. This will help decide on the trade-offs and policy options available, and set the conditions needed to achieve better health and wellbeing.
An economy of wellbeing
The wellbeing economy is an example of such vision. It focuses not just on delivering economic growth, but on health and wellbeing as both drivers and outcomes of that growth. This requires respecting and restoring natural environments and resources, as factors that are essential to human health and wellbeing. It calls on social innovation and participation, and on investing in prevention and providing opportunities for all to further develop skills and talents. Investments in early childhood and along the life course, with a person-centred, empowering approach will have the most positive effects on health and wellbeing in the long term. Digital and technological innovation can also underpin these system changes in positive disruptive ways. Several of the articles in this newest edition of the magazine contribute to this ambition to help make the vision of a wellbeing economy a reality.
Prof Martin Dietrich, acting director of BZgA and President of EuroHealthNet explores social innovation to aid communities in Europe. In what way can we use these initiatives to combat and tackle inequalities, improve healthcare and wellbeing? How can we support the most vulnerable groups in society via conceptual, process, product, or organisational changes?
Cost of living crisis
A second article from Pia Sundell, Executive Director at the Finnish Children’s Welfare Association and Vice-President of EuroHealthNet, examines the detrimental impacts financial cuts can have upon community initiatives. How do such cuts threaten the health and wellbeing of those most vulnerable in our societies particularly children and young people?
We hear from Dr Sumina Azam's (Policy Lead and Deputy Director in Policy and International Health at Public Health Wales and Vice-President of EuroHealthNet) team, Dr Louisa Petchey and Manon Roberts, who reflect on how generally the cost-of-living crisis impacts public health. What are the lessons learned?
We hear from Karin Skierus, who works as a Circus Consultant in the Västra Götaland Region in Sweden. As mounting evidence demonstrates the potential of arts, creative and cultural activities to strengthen wellbeing and health, the region’s Cultural Strategy works towards creating a cultural region that holds social equality, sustainability, gender equality and diversity at its heart.
In addition to social innovation, a wellbeing economy can also be facilitated by digital innovation. We read the personal story of Petra Hoogendoorn (Coordinator of the Horizon Europe project Label2Enable) and how she became involved in health applications and certification. Health apps have the potential to bridge the inequality gap as well as digital literacy and an ability to empower individuals.
Economy of ageing
We also delve into the economy of an ageing population with the team from the European Observatory, Professor Charles Normand, Gemma Williams and Jonathan Cylus as they examine the economics of healthy and active ageing, sustainable approaches, and the implications of healthy ageing. How will the current economic crisis affect older people? What effective mechanisms are already in place to support an ageing population?
Social impacts of the pandemic
Finally, in an article from the EuroHealthNet office, we look back on almost 3 years of COVID-19 and government responses. We reflect on the reasons why pandemic responses failed to account for the social impact of the pandemic and containment measures and set out examples of countries who succeeded in taking an approach led by health equity considerations.
I hope that this edition of the Magazine is an inspiration for you and your work, and as always, please do not hesitate to contact the authors directly or write to us at the EuroHealthNet offices for further information or enquiries. Happy reading!
Caroline Costongs is Director of EuroHealthNet and expert in public health and health promotion. Caroline leads a multi-disciplinary team working on European and (sub)national policy, advocacy, research and capacity building addressing health inequalities. Caroline is active in various EU and WHO fora, Advisory Boards and various EU projects, and is a member of the ICC – International Council for the European Public Health Conference.