After Ebola, global health experts say crisis is the new normal


Speakers at the European Health Forum. Gastein, October 2015. [Henriette Jacobsen]

This article is part of our special report European Health Forum Gastein 2015.

SPECIAL REPORT / After nearly a decade of economic crisis, an Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and a refugee crisis, experts say that EU health systems must get used to the fact that “shockwaves” are here to stay.

They hope that the Ebola outbreak will be a wake up call, that, without stronger European leadership, healthcare in the EU will come under many threats. 

At the European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG) on Thursday (1 October), DEVCO, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, hosted a forum dealing with how to secure health in the EU through development work and international cooperation.

DEVCO’s Kevin McCarthy stressed that the bloc aims to strengthen national healthcare systems in developing countries in order to guarantee primary healthcare for all sections of the population, including those who live on the margins of society. This is needed in order to prevent and control pandemics, such as the as the recent Ebola epidemic.

But Ilona Kickbusch, Director of the Global Health Programme at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Switzerland, argued that despite the significant number of things that the Commission is doing, its leadership could be more determined, visible and stronger.

She called for more leadership in the areas of social protection, universal healthcare and access to health.

New crisis reality

Kickbusch also emphasised that the EU needs get used to many global health crises in the future, which will have an impact on healthcare in Europe.

“We have been in a financial crisis for nearly ten years. We have been in a permanent state of crisis and emergency. Many of our policy mechanisms both at EU, national and global level are not really geared to that constant crisis effect. I think we also do need to say goodbye to the notion that there is a kind of normal scene and crises are something special, an exception,” the global health expert said. 

Kickbusch stated that healthcare systems not only need to be “resilient”, a new buzzword within EU health, but they also need to be prepared for, and respond to, crises in many ways.

“A lot of people have hoped that the scare that came with the Ebola crisis is what some of us call a ‘cosmopolitan moment’. A moment where institutions and governments wake up and say ‘Hey, we actually have to do something’. You see, after the Ebola crisis in the EU and within the Commission, an increased activity in relation to preparedness in relation to health in countries in Africa, to get their health systems developed.” 

Frazer Goodwin, Senior Advocacy Adviser of Save the Children’s EU office, pointed out that though this year’s Ebola outbreak does not signify a new kind of epidemic, it highlighted the fact that in many countries, health systems are dramatically unprepared for such challenges, and that in the EU, there are research programmes on global health that are neglected.

“The reason why we responded to the Ebola crisis, let’s be honest, was because it might be killing rich white people. We don’t respond to the deaths in maternal healthcare in Bangladesh, even though they are happening at a much greater scale,” Goodwin said. 

Cutting costs for the development of global health programmes in Europe, Goodwin stressed, can potentially backfire when, for example, epidemics at the EU’s borders start to cause problems.

Remco van de Pas, a researcher at the Institute for Trophical Medicine in Antwerp, added that when it comes to health, it’s not about doing more. Often it’s enough that policymakers take the most basic and effective action, and focus on health prevention and promotion.

The European Health Forum Gastein meeting in Austria is Europe's largest gathering of health policymakers.

After having discussed how to set up sustainable EU health systems in times of crisis, and the EU elections in 2014, this year’s conference will focus on for example responses to threats that lie outside of the public health sector.

  • 28-30 September 2016: Next year's European Health Forum Gastein.

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