Avoiding the world another terrible contamination

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A general view of an empty Champs Elysee avenue in Paris, France, 4 April 2020. [Yoan Valat/EPA/EFE]

In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU should introduce a range measures including a common human health protection policy aimed at reducing the risk of future epidemics arising from poor sanitary or phytosanitary conditions that would have to be met by countries exporting product to the EU, writes Dick Roche.

Dick Roche is a former European Affairs minister of Ireland. He is one of the politicians who signed the Health Shield for Europe initiative.

We are just beginning to come to terms with the way that the COVID-19 pandemic has upended life – it will take time before we can comprehend the full extent of the global challenge it presents or the changes that it will usher in.

One of the many ‘red flags’ that the pandemic has raised for policymakers must be a warning that globalisation, which has been propelled at breakneck speed, brings with it extraordinary levels of vulnerability.

The pandemic will be the ultimate stress test for globalization. In the post– Covid 19 era a more sceptical view as to the benefits of unfettered globalization is likely to become a new political norm.

The pandemic also raises a ‘red flag’ for the European Union. It is critical that the Union, which has just lost a member state and which is slipping from the affection of many citizens, acts in a focused and coordinated way to the extraordinary range of challenges that the pandemic has brought about.

As Giuseppe Conte warned EU leaders, they are “facing an appointment with history” and if their response is inadequate “the risk of failure is real”.

In time we will have a full analysis of the pandemic, the effectiveness of the measures that have been taken and the lessons that must be learned. Hopefully, that analysis will be objective, fact-based and devoid of political recrimination, finger-pointing and political point-scoring – some of which we have seen of late.

As a response to the impact of the pandemic, a group with experience in the EU and National Parliaments, member state governments, the EU Commission, NATO, science and medicine have submitted an open letter to the European Commission and NATO outlining an eclectic set of actions that could be taken to put in place a ‘health shield’ for Europe and, with European leadership, to create a similar shield for citizens in the wider world, particularly for those who live in the less developed world.

Recognising the role that poor dietary, farming, hunting and food practices around the globe have played in previous coronavirus outbreaks and the reported origin of the current pandemic in a ‘wet market’ the submission suggests the creation of a common EU sanitary and human health protection policy aimed at reducing the risk of future epidemics arising from poor sanitary or phytosanitary conditions.

The policy proposals provide for the identification of ‘high risk’ zones from which epidemics may emerge, empower the EU to establish “protocols for kinetic exchange of investments, food and risky goods” and provide for the introduction of regulatory measures aimed at controlling the circulation and exchange of people, goods and businesses with such zones until an identified risk is reduced.

The measures suggested could include:

  • Travel requirements including the production of ‘medical visas’
  • Rules relating to outsourcing of businesses and production lines,
  • Enhanced regulation covering food and other sensitive substances.

The submission envisages that regulatory measures should be time-constrained and expire when it can be demonstrated that the risks have been addressed.

Recognising that ensuring the type of health, sanitary and phytosanitary requirements on imports envisaged could be burdensome on developing countries the submission proposes that the EU uses its development policy to extend technical and other assistance to help such countries to upgrade their capacity to meet the higher standards.

The submission also looks at the impact of foreign investment decisions and their impacts on supply chains.

Recommending that “global supply chains and foreign direct investment policies should operate to the mutual advantage of all peoples and nations”, it proposes that the EU critically review the acquisition of assets in member states by foreign actors which “could potentially jeopardise ability to provide sufficient protection for human health, flora and fauna”.

The review should also look at the impacts in third countries Europe external investments.

Noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed “large deficits and a disturbing reliance on imports” the submission recommends a review of member states’ industrial policies aimed at “ensuring a sufficient level of production of vital medicines, devices and equipment” within the EU.

Emphasising the need to “learn the message from the current crisis and never let supply capacity endanger the lives, welfare and well-being of Europe’s citizens and in particular of front line staff who put their health and their lives on the line in times of crisis” the creation of an ‘EU Buffer Stock’ of critical equipment and supplies for EU front line services is proposed.

The submission also suggests that the pandemic raises a wider need to put in place protocols to ensure uniformity in the approaching emergency situations whether natural or man-made.  It suggests the possibility of a common EU wide regime for vaccinations.

It also looks at the issues the pandemic raises for the Schengen zone observing that the free movement whether in the EU or the Schengen zone “makes it a must that we adopt uniform quarantine regulations, coordinated by the European Commission” – an  ‘EU medical/health Schengen’.

Recognising that in a shrinking world epidemics and crises have arisen with increasing regularity the submission proposes the establishment of a standing advisory Council to forewarn of ‘unimaginable’ threats and emergencies – ‘ACUTE.’

Finally and importantly the submission, in addition to proposing internal actions within the EU 27 also looks to the wider world.

The creation of a ‘health shield’ should not be in any sense ‘EU centric’ rather the initiative should involve global partners, including the WHO, OECD, FAO, NATO and the UN. Working with global partners the aim should be to create a “golden standard and long term action plan (and) to implement it globally”.

There is an expression in the Irish language – “ní neart gur cur le chéile” – roughly translated, it means ‘we are at our best when we all pull together’.

The basic philosophy underlying the submission is that if ever there was a time to ‘pull together’ this is it.

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