COVID-19 pandemic impacts severely on WHO European Region

 Tuesday, June 28, 2022 

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on countries’ health systems and economies, but its impact on the 11 smallest countries in the WHO European Region – many of which rely on tourism as a large part of their national economy – has been particularly severe.

Meeting at the 8th high-level meeting of the WHO/Europe Small Countries Initiative, the countries’ health ministers and delegates endorsed a bold vision to drive recovery in the post-COVID-19 era.

The 2-day event, held on 2–3 June 2022 in Bečići, Montenegro, saw the ministers and their representatives discuss 2 key issues: how small countries can successfully recover from the pandemic, and how they can place health at the heart of their tourism sectors.

WHO Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, said at the opening of the meeting, how they fare, rebuild, take stock and prepare as they close a chapter and start writing a new one is in our hands.

Since its establishment 8 years ago, the Small Countries Initiative has proved its worth as a forum to share experiences and innovations, and in finding common solutions to the unique challenges that you face.

Now is the time to make sure they learn from past mistakes and succeed in building back better.

The Initiative is composed of 11 countries: Andorra, Cyprus, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, San Marino and Slovenia.

At the end of the meeting, the countries’ delegates unanimously adopted the Montenegro Statement, which outlines key commitments for moving forward.

It highlights several points for action, including commitments to:

strong health governance, because governance helps provide timely emergency preparedness and response as well as service delivery, access to medicines, innovation in digital health and social protection;

sustainable and equitable health financing, because small countries vary widely in their fiscal capacity to secure sustainable public financing for health (ministers agreed that, where spending is low, countries will increase it to levels commensurate to health needs);

a well resourced and well supported health workforce, because health workers are the pillar of any resilient health system; and

the recognition that health and tourism are deeply interconnected in a globalized world, and that the reopening of travel and tourism is crucial for economic recovery, jobs and livelihoods in small countries.

Health as key to sustainable tourism

In an unprecedented move, WHO/Europe is urging small and large countries alike to factor health and health financing into their efforts to revamp their tourism sector – especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When COVID-19 struck the Region in 2020, small countries saw a decline in tourism by more than 70% in the first year alone, which affected economic recovery, jobs and livelihoods.

Dr Natasha Azzopardi Muscat, Director of the Division of Country Health Policies and Systems at WHO/Europe and a native of Malta said that now they have an opportunity to reframe the way we build the tourism sector – from tourists’ hygiene to the safety of all workers in the tourism sector, from ensuring the protection of human rights to tourists’ access to quality health services.

So, it’s back to business, but not business as usual.

Another item at the heart of the meeting – and now reflected in the Statement – was the importance of health financing.

Both the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Tourism of Montenegro attended and spoke at the meeting, signalling the political relevance of this topic.

The experiences shared by the countries during the event were not limited to the European Region.

For the first time, the Health Minister of Seychelles attended in person, highlighting the relevance of the nexus between health and tourism in many other parts of the world.

This was affirmed by the Caribbean, represented by a delegate from the Caribbean Public Health Agency, who joined the event virtually.

About the Small Countries Initiative

The Small Countries Initiative was established in 2013 at an informal meeting held during the 63rd session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe in Çeşme Izmir, Türkiye.

The Initiative has since grown into a network of 11 Member States in the WHO European Region with populations of 2 million or less.

Throughout the years, the Initiative has acted as a laboratory for innovation and a collaborative platform through which members can address issues unique to small countries, including those related to social, environmental and economic contexts, and health-related needs and vulnerabilities.

At the end of the meeting, Minister of Health of Luxembourg Ms Paulette Lenert confirmed Luxembourg as the host of the 9th high-level meeting of the Small Countries Initiative, to be held in May 2023.

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