Medical advice to EU leaders: prevention comes before cure

The EU’s recovery package is the not-to-be-missed opportunity to lead us to a healthier future and should not extend a lifeline to the pollution that is making us sick, writes Peter van den Hazel.

Peter van den Hazel, medical doctor and co-founder, International Coordinator of International Network for Children’s Health, Environment and Safety (INCHES), is the President of HEAL (Health and the Environment Alliance).

It’s every doctor’s first prescription of choice: prevention before cure. Stop smoking, exercise more, eat a balanced diet. Take care of your body, and you will minimise the risks of illness and injury and boost your resilience to whatever ailment you cannot prevent.

The same applies to our planet. If we take care of our planet, our planet will take better care of us. It will reduce the risks from viruses and vector-borne diseases; from the fumes, chemicals and plastics that weaken our bodies; and from the malnutrition and heat stress intensified by climate change.

Investment in the health of our planet is itself a public health tool. It’s an investment in our own health and resilience to future shocks, be it pandemics, floods, wildfires or other catastrophes.

Just this month, a new report by the European Environment Agency underlined the urgency of tackling pollution and climate change in the interest of health, with the worrying number that poor quality environments contribute to one in eight, or 13%, of deaths in Europe.

In the next few months, the European Union has the power to either set us on a path towards that healthier and more resilient future or to turbo-boost polluting industries and infrastructure and exacerbate the global health crisis we find ourselves in.

Europe’s €1.8 trillion seven-year budget and its Next Generation EU recovery package, under negotiation over the next few months between the EU Council and the European Parliament, will set the contours of our long-term recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

EU countries and MEPs therefore have the opportunity — and the duty to the European people — to prioritise public health and rebuild an economy based on jobs and industries that support it.

Political leaders have already committed to zero pollution under the EU Green Deal. As such, the prescription from health professionals to leaders is very simple: put people’s health at the core of whatever you agree.

In doing so, create a list of polluting industries that should be explicitly excluded from future public spending. If a production or service makes us sicker and weaker, it should not benefit from taxpayers money.

Unfortunately, in the budget agreed in July, EU heads of state and government seemingly have not learned the lesson on greater health protection. Their agreement doesn’t even mention the word “pollution”, let alone talk about how to tackle its effects on health.

The European Council wants to reduce the EU4Health budget to a mere €1.7 billion, from the European Commission’s proposal of €9.4 billion, jeopardising the EU’s ability and ambition to strengthen healthcare systems and public health protection.

It has also cut the proposed budget for the Just Transition Fund by €30 billion – meaning less money for the much-needed transformation of regions that are still highly coal dependent towards a healthy energy future.

The European Parliament has made clear that it disapproves of the Council’s cuts, saying they will “undermine the foundations of a sustainable and resilient recovery.” Now it’s up to MEPs to fulfill their promise not to accept the final budget until it is improved.

Pollution from dominant industries such as chemicals and pesticides, petrol and diesel cars, coal-fired power generation and agricultural activities increase the risk of developing pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, heart disease and strokes, make those ailments more severe and affect those most vulnerable the worst — as 40 million health professionals pointed out in an open letter to G20 leaders in May.

From a health perspective, the only logical principle can be ensuring zero pollution and transforming any industry or service that does not adhere to this principle.

The World Health Organization, which also supported the open letter, has set out concrete steps that all governments should take to forge a healthy recovery.

They include protecting nature; investing in essential services including water, sanitation, clean energy and healthcare facilities; and an end to taxpayer-funded pollution, including subsidies for fossil fuel power and polluting modes of transport.

The European Union should take WHO’s recommendation to heart and consult with medical and scientific advisors, the wider health sector and civil society.

Healthcare professionals, scientists and academics are guiding us through this pandemic, and people are listening to them — they are wearing masks, working from home and refraining from hugging their friends and family, to save lives. People trust the experts, and our leaders must too.