COVID-19: Recovery Must Lead to a Different Economy, an Economy of Well-being

Statement by Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, at the online WHO/Europe's press briefing on 28 May 2020, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Today, it is just over four calendar months since the first cases of new coronavirus were officially reported in the WHO European Region.

Let me provide you with a brief overview of the current situation regarding COVID-19 across the 53 countries, and 900 million people living in the WHO European Region. As of this week, there have been over 2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the Region, and tragically, over 175,000 people have died.

Perhaps a less reported, but equally alarming figure is that since early March, more than 159,000 excess deaths, coinciding with the pandemic, have been reported from 24 European countries. These are deaths above and beyond what we would have expected normally at this time of the year.

Based on case information reported to WHO, 94% of all COVID-19 deaths were in persons aged 60 years and above, and 59% of all those who died were men. 97% of all deaths were among those with at least one underlying condition, according to information available, with cardiovascular disease the leading comorbidity.

I wish those who are ill from the disease a full and speedy recovery and send my deepest sympathy to people who have lost loved ones to the virus. Let me also repeat my heartfelt gratitude to those on the frontline, in health, social and other services, working relentlessly to save lives.

Over the past 14 days cumulative cases in the European Region have increased 15% and the Region still accounts for 38% of cases and 50% of deaths globally.

The five European countries reporting the highest cumulative numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases over the past 14 days are the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Belarus, and Italy. Spain, Italy, the UK and France continue to account for 72% of all COVID-19 deaths in the Region.

Understandably, as the weeks pass, people and politicians alike are eager to reopen businesses and return to workplaces. 48 countries across the WHO European Region are adjusting their public health and social measures. The most common measures that are eased first are the opening of non-essential businesses and relaxation of domestic movement restrictions.  Let us remember, we are not measuring lives against livelihoods, nor health against wealth. This is not an “either/ or”: There is no economy without people. There can be no economic recovery without COVID-19 transmission under control.

Learning from the past, looking to the future, I have 3 messages today. We must recognize:

 1.   Controlling the virus and economic recovery go hand-in-hand.

 2.   COVID-19 impacts all, but some more than others – we cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

 3.   We can build back better – a different economy that is more equal and inclusive.

My first message: The best way to protect the economy is to protect people. Europe is entering an economic recession. Economic output is set to collapse in the first half of 2020 with most of the contraction taking place in the second quarter. It is then expected to pick up, assuming the virus is controlled. According to the EU’s Spring Economic Forecast, and I quote, “GDP is forecast to contract by about 7½ % this year, far deeper than during the global financial crisis in 2009, and to rebound by only 6% in 2021. This rebound, however, would leave the European economy, at the end of this forecast horizon, about 3% lower than the output level implied by the autumn forecast.”

At WHO we are concerned that countries will respond to this crisis in the same way they did to the recession 10 years ago. Many countries in Europe responded to that crisis by cutting public spending on health. Between 2008 and 2013, public spending on health per person fell in around half of the countries in our Region. Those cuts prevented many people from accessing the health care they needed. Unmet need for health care increased in 19 out of 28 EU countries, affecting 3 million more people in 2013 than in 2008. Furthermore, up to 9% of households were pushed into poverty – or further impoverished – as a result of having to pay out-of-pocket for health care.

Countries that took the path of cuts to health spending struggled to recover from the economic shock.

We must learn from the mistakes of the past.

Today, our priority must be to invest in health, invest in social protection and, above all, avoid austerity, which has devastated the lives of so many in Europe.

Investing in health and social protection – especially when the economy is unstable – is the mark of responsible policy action.

My second message is: COVID-19 has affected us all, but not all equally.

The vulnerable people in society: people in informal work, people close to poverty, mothers living alone with children – have become even more vulnerable as a result of COVID-19. Yet in recent weeks, we have seen many examples of actions by countries and communities to alleviate insecurity, reinforce the social fabric, and support health.

Social allowances for low income families in Uzbekistan have been temporarily extended by an extra 6 months. In Spain, rental assistance programmes have been introduced for homeless people and more substantive income security policies are being introduced. Volunteer organizations in Serbia have helped Roma children with distance learning. Parents with children under 8 in Poland can access an additional 14 days of childcare allowance. Unemployment benefits will be temporarily available to freelancers and self-employed people in Finland. National authorities are providing food, medical supplies and financial assistance to vulnerable people and children in Kyrgyzstan.

COVID-19 has highlighted a fundamental truth: when one of us lacks health and care, we are all at risk. No one is safe until everyone is safe.

Policy-makers have choices, even in difficult circumstances. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

So my third message is this: Recovery must lead to a different economy. We call it an economy of well-being.

An economy of well-being means:

An economy that puts people in the center.

An economy that provides a safety net for everyone and protects front line workers.

An economy that contributes to a green climate and environmental sustainability.

An economy where public health is seen as a driver of jobs in the health sector, particularly for young people and as a safeguard of economy, security and peace.

Beyond defeating the disease, the great test all countries will soon face is whether current feelings of common purpose will shape society after the crisis. As leaders learnt in the Great Depression, to demand collective sacrifice you must offer a social contract that benefits everyone. The leaders at that time did not wait for victory to plan for what would follow. We must mobilize the will from politicians and people alike to create a better society which is fair and safe for everyone. An economy where we leave no one behind.

28 May 2020 17:39