WHO report: Europe urgently needs integral reform of healthcare, surveillance and governance

September 10, 2021

If the Pan-European region is to be ready for the next pandemic, countries urgently need to reform healthcare, surveillance and governance. This is one of the main conclusions of a World Health Organization (WHO) report which reviewed the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by 53 countries. According to the report, repeated warnings of a global pandemic from the scientific community were ignored, culminating in a world that was not prepared when the virus first emerged in late 2019.

Prof. dr. ir. Louise O. Fresco, president of Wageningen University & Research (WUR), was part of the Pan-European commission on Health and Sustainable Development in this latest WHO report. They rethought the policy priorities in the light of pandemics. Fresco led the One Health working group of the commission and called for a convergence of human, animal and environmental knowledge at national, Pan-European and global levels. When combining these fields, the world will not only be able to deal faster with future pandemics; it might actually help prevent them.

Single country solutions are not enough

Many countries’ first ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to the pandemic was to close geographic and economic borders, the WHO report states. ‘Countries implemented isolated national responses and ignored cross-country considerations. However, COVID-19 showed that single country solutions are not enough when it comes to the spread of communicable diseases in a hyper-connected globalized world. Such crises can only be tackled effectively through joint international action.’

Policy responses

The WHO report further determined that divergent and erroneous policy responses meant the impacts of COVID-19 have been and continue to be catastrophic. ‘With over 1.2 million deaths in the European region alone (over 4 million globally) and an unprecedented economic downturn that dwarfs the 2008 global financial crisis. It is vital we learn from our mistakes, for we cannot afford to make them again.’

Therefore, 4 main priorities of pandemic preparedness have been identified in the report:

  • Adopt a ‘One Health’ policy recognising the interconnectedness of human, animal & environmental health.
  • Address deep-seated health, social, economic and gender inequalities exposed by the pandemic.
  • Invest in innovation, data collection and sharing, and strong national health systems.
  • Improve regional and global health governance, learning lessons from COVID-19.

One Health

In the WHO report, the concept of One Health is crucial: ‘it recognises the interconnection between people, animals, plants and their shared environment. When one part of One Health is at risk, the other pieces are also in danger. Human activities like deforestation, the trade and consumption of wildlife, and international travel, are thought to have led to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 and facilitated its global spread. We, and our descendants, now face a precarious future unless we all take urgent action to correct course.’

Pandemic preparedness

Wageningen University & Research has been a vocal scientific voice, now and in the past, warning policymakers about pandemics such as COVID-19. Earlier this year WUR announced ERRAZE@WUR, which essentially is a global One Health initiative. In the ERRAZE@WUR (Early Recognition and Rapid Action in Zoonotic Emergencies) research and investment framework, researchers from various disciplines work together to help build the scientific foundation needed to prevent future pandemics and to limit their impact.

The Netherlands can take action now

The Netherlands is in a great position to take action on the report. The government can build on the expertise of WUR and the Center for One Health (NCOH) and put One Health in all policies.

Finding Answers Together

Through this initiative, WUR aims to support policymakers and decision-makers and thus society at large in preventing future pandemics and mitigating their impact. Wageningen University & Research invites partners and other organisations to join the new ERRAZE@WUR framework and find answers together.