From 1918 to 2020, the lessons of pandemics remain: health systems must be kept strong, and international health cooperation underpinned
“The new normal” and “unprecedented times” are phrases all of us will be familiar with hearing this year as the shock of COVID-19 continues to reverberate. And yet, in a broader historical view, pandemic infections have long been a ‘normal’ for our species. I write this not to in any way trivialise the whirlwind of damage being created by COVID-19 and reactions to its effects, but rather as a means of reassurance that we have been here before, come through the other side, and occasionally, put in practice vital lessons from the important learnings derived from the experience.
Without going to the times of the plague, I think, for example, of the cruel so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918, that callously tore through countries at the closing of the First World War, robbing the lives of an estimated 50 million persons worldwide and leaving enormous economic and social scars behind. Critical lessons were learned at this huge price, such as the need for strong and resilient health systems, and international vigilance and cooperation against public health threats.
This comes to mind as we anticipate the closing months of 2020 and what they might mean for European cooperation on cancer. One simplistic approach might be a knee jerk response to deprioritise all EU initiatives not considered directly relevant to combatting COVID-19 and its effects, and the rebuilding of our health and economic systems. The other, more visionary and long-looking view, is to grasp that, as with any event of such enormous proportions, be it health emergency, financial crash, war or other, seeking a quick return to the old is illusory. Things neither can, nor should, go back to the way they were.
So with Europe, the EU and health. After COVID-19, who really, in honesty, can imagine that pan-European health cooperation will return to be the minor part,
the secondary consideration, of inter-governmental collaboration? To do so would be an insult to all those who have suffered so much as a result of this health crisis, which knows no artificial limits.
That is why, in May 2020, when EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides announced to members of the European Cancer Organisation that she was pursuing the establishment of a new €9.4 billion European Health Funding mechanism, we responded with delight. A politician who understood the moment, and the response that we owe to future generations.
It is also why it was so crushing to learn that the EU Council of Ministers subsequently determined to cut the proposal to a severely reduced €1.7 billion.
This is the side struggle that takes place at our present time in respect of COVID-19. What world will we build out of the other side of the crisis? One of continued small thinking on health cooperation, or one that extracts positive change from the grim experiences endured by all?
As we work with the European Parliament, European Commission and Government representatives to continue conveying the opportunities that exist from the new EU Beating Cancer Plan, Cancer Mission and Pharmaceutical Strategy, in four months we will have a better sense of which side has gained ground in that battle of ideas: the advocates for the old world, or for the new world.
The cancer community cannot be bystanders in this contest. Like COVID-19, cancer knows no borders. The global battle against disease and poor health should not either. It is the borders of some political leaders’ imaginations for the post COVID-19 world that must be opened now.