Inaugural speech at the conference 'Health, Care and Prosperity after Covid-19: Swedish and European Perspectives', Stockholm, 25 May 2023
Séamus Boland, President of the Civil Society Organisations' Group of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)
Honourable Lena Hallengren, Madame State Secretary, ladies and gentlemen,
It is with great pleasure that I would like to welcome you to this conference on the topic 'Health, Care and Prosperity after Covid-19: Swedish and European perspectives'. By chance, this is the European Mental Health Week, so the timing of our event is very appropriate! But allow me to begin by thanking the European Institutions for hosting us and of course, to thank our four Swedish Members – Ariane Rodert, Jan Andersson, Louise Grabo and Irma Kilim – for all their help in organising this event. You are already considered 'star pupils' within the Committee, as the Swedish delegation within our Group is composed primarily of ladies – something which regrettably is an exception!
With us today, we also have 70 Members of the Civil Society Organisations' Group of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). They represent a wide range of civil society sectors in the 27 countries which are members of the EU. For some, this is their first time in Sweden. I am sure that they are impressed by your beautiful city and its high environmental standards. You have achieved a great deal to be proud of as a society!
Like my country, Ireland, Sweden is also on the periphery of the European continent. However, Sweden has certainly not been on the periphery of European history. Yes, we all know Sweden for the Noble Peace Prize – which the EU also received in 2012 – and we all know about Abba!
But perhaps our non-Scandinavian colleagues are not aware that in the 18th Century, the Swedish Empire was one of the great powers in Europe, with territorial control over much of the Baltic region. Sweden was also one of the protagonists of the 17th Century 'Thirty Years' War', which was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history.
Going back further, we had the Vikings, who in the mid-9th Century made the city of Kyiv the capital of the Slavic East European Federation. Hence, from the North to the South of Europe, East to West, we share a lot of common European history. This is something we should remember, when discussing our common European future.
Turning now to the subject of our conference: 'Health, Care and Prosperity after Covid-19'. The pandemic was, without doubt, very traumatic for nations, communities, families and individuals. Covid also fully exposed the existing inadequacies of national health and care systems, which were already over-stretched by years of under-investment and ageing populations. We are also experiencing exponential increases in 'excess deaths'. In the third quarter of 2022 and early 2023, monthly deaths across Europe were 10% higher than expected – reaching as high as 23% in Germany.
These figures are shocking when one considers that in most OECD countries, there have recently been significant increases in the number of health staff. Health expenditure has also reached almost 10% of GDP. Regrettably, low levels of immunity post Covid and delayed treatments of other diseases, have led to an explosion in demand for healthcare services. Combined with higher than usual levels of exhausted and demotivated medical staff, the result is a dangerous decline in the quality of care in many European countries.
This leads us onto one of the topics we will be exploring today, namely: how to guarantee the right to quality healthcare? And how to enhance accessibility and protect the most vulnerable? The first thing to acknowledge, is that across all human cultures and societies, healthcare occupies a central place. The attention that we give to healthcare reflects our societal values of altruism, responsibility, respect, dignity and equality. Secondly, we should remember that within the EU, access to affordable and good quality healthcare, is indeed a right. This was agreed upon by all EU Member States, when they signed up to the European Pillar of Social Rights in 2017. And it was reiterated last year, when citizens in the Conference on the Future of Europe called for the 'Right to Health' guaranteeing all Europeans (and I quote):
…equal and sustainable access to affordable, preventive, curative and quality healthcare.
However, in order to be able to provide qualitive healthcare for our most vulnerable - be they the elderly, the young, persons with disability and the families caring for them, or indeed in order to be able to invest sufficiently in women's health - it is necessary to firstly build resilient and qualitative health and care systems.
And this is a very complex process. It involves many interrelated policy areas which should work in coordination and complementarity. We also need to invest in an educated, skilled and motivated workforce, which is held in high social esteem and adequately renumerated. Likewise, we should avoid gender stereotyping. Women cannot continue to be the principal carers of the elderly nor of persons with disabilities.
And of course, it is imperative to be forward looking. Medical research and artificial intelligence must remain high as investment priorities. Not only in order to make healthcare more efficient and qualitative, but also in order to improve Europe's competitiveness and to find innovative ways of managing our ageing populations.
Ladies and gentlemen, if there is one thing that I would like you to reflect upon today, it is the necessity to change mindsets. To change mindsets socially, economically and politically. It is imperative that we move away from the perception of health as a perceived 'cost'. On the contrary, we must begin to view and to value healthcare as a social investment.
And this implies striving for a human-centred healthcare and integrated provision of care. Healthcare should be centred on people, respecting individual choices and supporting families. It must be a system where social innovation and the social economy work alongside existing health providers, to enable the best possible services for citizens. The Covid-19 pandemic already demonstrated the pivotal role of civil society organisations and volunteers. Certainly, at the beginning of the health crisis, CSOs and volunteers were at times the only care providers.
Today, we also need more synergies and partnerships between the different actors and public authorities involved in healthcare. CSOs should be directly involved in planning, implementing and monitoring healthcare. For example, family and care organisations, associations for the elderly, women, persons with disabilities, social enterprises etc. These are the actors who must be involved in national policy and developing National Action Plans on healthcare.
Looking at the European level and building on the success of EU-wide cooperation on the Covid-19 vaccination programme, the European Commission has made a number of proposals for cross-border cooperation on healthcare. For example, the 'European Care Strategy', 'EU for Health', the 'European Health Union' and 'Europe's Beating Cancer Plan'. In each case, the aim is not to overstep national boundaries, nor is it to impose common rules. On the contrary, the objective is to encourage reforms and investments, leading to synergies, holistic approaches and upward convergence in healthcare, among and within EU countries.
Sweden already has very high healthcare standards and you have a lot to teach other EU countries. And health remains a national prerogative. However, EU coordination can help towards pooling expertise, better planning and overcoming common transborder challenges quicker, as we already saw during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I will bring my comments to a close, with a reference to Thomas Moore, the 16th Century humanist, who in his famous work 'Utopia', lamented
It’s a pretty poor doctor who cannot cure one disease without giving you another. We may not all agree with all of Thomas Moore's beliefs, but we can agree that health is a 'wealth' due to everyone! Thank you for your attention.