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United in health

Updated: May 24, 2020

Photographs: iStock

Text: Narcis George Matache

Chaos and silver linings in the European Union

The organisation and financing of the health system have always been in the competence of the member state. The member states never considered integrating the health systems into the European Union mechanisms. Yet, when the pandemic hit Europe, everyone looked at the European Union for answers. At the same time, the member states scrambled to find the medical supplies, engaging into a race in which there was no more friends or allies, just the national interest. As expected, chaos emerged, with even the best healthcare systems in Europe struggling to survive, while even the most wealthy and strong member states finding it challenging to compete for medical supplies against giants like the United States. However, the chaos pushed the European Union to progress bringing silver linings to the European citizens.

Working in the cabinet of a member of the European Parliament, I had the chance to witness first-hand how the pandemic affected the European Union. It started with disbelief that it will indeed affect us. While China was being ravaged, our team developed a tool to strengthen the role of the European Union during cross-border medical emergencies. However, due to the expected reticence from member states to pool together in matters of health, we failed to pass it through the legislative process. It was February, and I was telling my housemates, brace yourselves for the near future.

My housemates thought I was exaggerating, like the boy who cried wolf. Similarly, our colleagues from the European Parliament refused to understand the magnitude of the problem. They remained locked into the perspective that healthcare is a national competence, and that is all there is to it. What followed was a lot of sleepless nights as I was closely following how my prediction was becoming a reality. The pandemic did arrive, and it proved too strong for any member state to handle alone.

"The pandemic did arrive, and it proved too strong for any member state to handle alone."

The first weeks of the pandemic are hard to describe in words, as human tragedy usually is. European solidarity has been rocked to its core. While Italy was asking for help, the other member states first thought has been, their own national interest. To put salt on the wound, the first responders to the Italian call for help, have been China, Russia and Cuba. Yes, malfunctioning medical equipment from China and pretend-soldier-doctors from Russia.

Yet, the strong PR machines of China and Russia turned them into the eyes of the European citizens as the true heroes in this crisis.

As member states realised that a stand-alone stance would not lead to a decrease in the level of tragedy, they finally saw the light and started to work together. Solidarity wasn’t just a word anymore, as medical personnel and supplies began to be dispatched to Italy. The European Commission saw this as a sign to be more daring, and surprise, the tool we tried to put into existence one month earlier, became a reality through an implemented act.

European Union Strategic Stockpiles The tool I keep referring to is the Strategic European Union Stockpile of medical supplies, mobile laboratories and vaccines. An emergency reserve that will be able to cover the needs of any hospital in the European Union promptly. An emergency reserve that will be able to procure the medical supplies in the name of the European Union giant, thus abhorring us of the sad spectacle of member states competing for supplies. An emergency reserve that will have supply lines already established and blueprints for industry reconversion to cover huge demand.

There is a clear mandate from the European citizens for more progress in the healthcare department. The strategic stockpile is a step forward, yet more needs to be done. If we are to stand firm against any cross-border medical emergencies, we must ensure the same quality of healthcare to the European citizen no matter which piece of the Union land they call home. The road is now paved for a European Health Union, the silver lining in this chaos.

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