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Europe fail to address Covid-19: Need for health citizenship
Joan Costa-Font

Europe fail to address Covid-19: Need for health citizenship

by Joan Costa-Font on 30th March 2020
A Europe-wide public-health authority should be a priority to counteract collective-action problems among EU member states.
The Covid-19 crisis is not just the most important health crisis that higher-income countries have suffered over the last century, but also one that comes with enormous consequences for the global economy. It illustrates more than ever that while globalisation can provide benefits, via free trade and mobility, it also entails risks. Although the exact consequences of the crisis are still to be determined, we already suspect that even under a best-case scenario they will be paradigm changing—and perhaps the tipping point desperately needed to address the challenges of globalisation. A key lesson from the crisis should be that the collaboration and collective action required in Europe to meet these challenges cannot be achieved without transferring powers to a European public-health authority.
Diverse responses
The way the world is organised has proven to be catastrophic for the management of this epidemic. In Europe, each country has reacted in a different way, perhaps revealing the distinct characters of national elites. Germany has managed to keep death rates low with heavy testing, but other European countries have been far slower to react, while some governments appear to have been less open about the situation they were facing and only reacted when the virus was at their doorstep.
Some countries, such as Austria and Poland, have demonstrated nationalist instincts in their responses by closing down their borders. Meanwhile, in Spain, the approach has included the centralisation of healthcare responsibilities following the declaration of a state of emergency, even though the relevant expertise is located at the regional level, and some Spanish regions which advocated for a lockdown have remained open.
In contrast, In Italy, the regions of Veneto and Lombardy were early movers in setting up a quarantine and urging locals to stay home. In Lombardy, local health authorities established strong containment measures in the initial cluster by quarantining several towns in an attempt to slow transmission of the virus. In Germany, states have taken the lead in fighting the virus, while in the UK Wales and Scotland have acted first by announcing policy measures such as school closures which were then followed by the whole country.
This being said, solutions must be built on co-operation and trust in existing institutions. Today, humanity faces an acute crisis, not only due to Covid-19 but also due to a lack of public trust. To defeat an epidemic, people need to trust scientific experts, citizens need to trust public authorities and countries need to trust each other.
Europe’s almost non-existent role
Public health was introduced as an express area of EU competence for the first time by the Maastricht treaty and internal market regulation does constitute a significant constraint on health services. European health governance is a multilevel system very much like that of other federations. According to article 3 of the Treaty on European Union, the European Community shall contribute to a ‘high level of health protection’. Although the right to health care is a ‘positive right’, the European Court of Justice has envisaged it as a ‘negative right’ linked with the principle of freedom and non-discrimination.
However, Europe reacted to the Covid-19 crisis fairly late. Only in the second week of March did the president of the European Commission propose that all non-essential travel to the EU should be suspended for 30 days. Alongside Europe’s failure to manage the migration crisis, it can be argued there is now a desperate need to reform the EU’s institutions to enable them to take more effective control over global crises in areas where national reactions are affected by collective-action problems (ie countries only react when they face an immediate cost to themselves).
A European public-health authority
Today, European citizenship is defined by a common European health card as much as a European passport. However, the European role in managing health crises has remained modest. The Covid-19 crisis highlights that public health (the management of global public risks) is an area where the EU should be more proactive. Given the nationalistic and even selfish policies implemented by various member states, the creation of a European wide public-health authority must now be viewed as an urgent matter to consider as part of wider reforms. Being European should entail having European health citizenship.
The help provided by the German state of Baden-Württemberg to patients in the French region of Alsace is illustrative of the fact that health crises like Covid-19 are global in nature and require collaboration to be eradicated. However, this collaboration and collective action cannot be enforced without transferring health powers to the European level. This should be accompanied by the recognition that local knowledge is fundamental to the management of health systems.
Crises like Covid-19 affect Europe in a different way from the rest of the world and there is a clear case for an authority that can ensure co-operative policy solutions across member states. If all European countries had implemented the same policy response that Germany put forward, Europe would likely have far fewer fatalities.
Although the delivery of health services is more efficient when it is decentralised (as preferences and needs are heterogeneous), global public-health crises should be addressed centrally at the highest level possible, namely the EU’s institutions. We should remember this lesson during the next pandemic.
This article first appeared on the EUROPP blog of the London School of Economics; it provides the view of the author, not a position of EUROPP