With the coronavirus (COVID-19) once again spreading rapidly, and the re-introduction of containment measures to flatten the curve of the epidemic, it is crucial for policymakers to plan effective strategies to re-open their economies to avoid further re-confinements. This should include much more effective testing, tracing and isolation policies that people can easily follow, as well as improved social distancing measures, according to a new OECD report.
Health at a Glance: Europe 2020 provides a first look at comparative data on how European countries have experienced and responded to the pandemic, including both outcomes and policies. Europe has again become a COVID-19 hotspot. As of 15 November 2020, over 10 million people in Europe had been infected and more than 265,000 died from COVID-19, with numbers continuing to rise rapidly. The report shows evidence that banning large gatherings, encouraging people to telework, mandating facemask wearing in public and encouraging their use in private gatherings involving at-risk groups, and strictly limiting capacity in restaurants, stores and other public indoor places can go a long way towards reducing the spread of the virus.
“The recent news of a vaccine is encouraging but tackling this pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “International collaboration will be key to ensuring mass production and widespread distribution of the vaccine. But countries also need to reinforce their support for the healthcare sector and workers, and extend the scale and effectiveness of testing, tracing and isolation policies.”
A few European countries, like Norway and Finland, have been better able to contain the spread of the virus, partly because of geographic factors (lower population density) but also because of greater preparedness and rapid and effective test, track and trace (TTT) strategy, and stronger trust and compliance of citizens with government rules and recommendations. Outside Europe, the four OECD countries in the Asia/Pacific region (Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) have successfully controlled the COVID-19 outbreak. Beyond their geographical characteristics, these countries quickly introduced effective testing, tracing and isolation policies as well as trust and compliance with social distancing and other key guidelines.
More effective testing, tracing and isolation policies are crucial. Many countries are still struggling to get test results back to people quickly and the effectiveness of contact tracing applications has been limited in several countries. Greater logistical efforts are needed to make tracing of contacts effective and for people infected with COVID-19 to isolate themselves.
During the first wave of the pandemic, 90% of deaths were people over 60 years old and about half or more of COVID-19 deaths in many European countries were among people living in care homes. Measures to isolate confirmed cases in nursing homes have improved, although it remains a challenge to isolate residents with certain conditions, such as neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, without increasing further their psychological distress.
The pandemic has also highlighted the shortages of health workers in many countries before the crisis, as well as the need to create additional reserve capacity that can be quickly mobilised in times of crisis.
Many people with chronic and other conditions besides COVID-19 were unable to access needed care during the first peak of the pandemic in Spring 2020. Access to primary care and specialist care needs to be maintained to respond to all care needs and minimise any complications and indirect deaths from the pandemic.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, waiting times for elective surgery were on the rise in many European countries, as the demand for surgery was increasing more rapidly than supply. These waiting times are likely to increase further in several countries, as many elective surgeries and cancer diagnoses and treatments were postponed during the pandemic.
The report also makes the case to address other ongoing important risk factors to health, notably air pollution that causes hundreds of thousands of deaths each year across EU countries.
Health at a Glance: Europe 2020 is the result of ongoing close collaboration between the OECD and the European Commission to improve country-specific and EU-wide knowledge on health issues as part of the Commission’s State of Health in the EU cycle.