HRH The Crown Princess' speech to the 71st session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe, 13 September 2021

Offentliggjort den 13. september 2021 / Published on 13 September 2021

Director-General, Regional Director, President of the RC71 session Manastirliu, honourable ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to speak to you all once again, at the opening of this 71st session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe.

The past year has in many ways been exceptional. And even though a lot has been achieved in combatting the pandemic there is still a lot to be done.

For many, the psychological, emotional, social and economic costs of the pandemic will be felt for years to come. The pandemic has made even more clear the health inequalities and areas of weakness that exist in our Region.

Today, I would like to highlight 3 issues of the possible many issues that otherwise could be highlighted:

First of all, children and youth and the negative consequences the pandemic has had on many of them – not least on their mental health.

Secondly, the importance of immunization to set children on a healthy path in life.

And thirdly, the impact on some of the most vulnerable groups in society as a result of a health sector overwhelmed in its efforts to tackle the pandemic.

20 months. That is the time that has passed since the pandemic first began to fill our news feeds.

20 months! Imagine that in the life of a young person who craves social interaction. A young person suddenly faced with a complete disruption of daily routines – and of all social life.

With four youngsters in our household and the work with the Mary Foundation, I have witnessed how prolonged social isolation effects the mood and behaviour of young people. 

Many children and young people have coped with it – although with difficulty. Many have suffered.

The beautiful, poignant and uplifting performance given this morning by the members of the “House of Swag Kids” gave us a flavour of how the pandemic has been felt by young people.

Congratulations with a remarkable performance. And thank you for your energy and talent, and for sharing your mental health challenges and experiences with us in such a creative and thought-provoking way. 

Artistic pursuits and performance have such a central place in our cultures, and a special ability to explain our experiences and heal our hurt. 

The piece we saw this morning reminds me of the words of the French literary giant, Victor Hugo:

 “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”.

We cannot remain silent on issues such as mental health. Our instinctive tendency to avoid these sensitive and often very personal and painful issues must be overcome.

With this morning’s performance in mind the early evidence emerging on the negative effects of the pandemic on the mental health of young people, is deeply concerning.

Simply being young is a risk factor for pandemic-associated mental health impacts, according to a study covering 17 of the European Region’s Member States.

We are only just beginning to recognize the impact that limited social interaction, disruptions to education and employment, and an uncertain future may have had on our younger generation.

The pandemic has only served to remind us that we cannot take  mental health for granted.

The restrictions and separation from friends have affected young people at a significant and vulnerable time in their lives. Many have suffered mental health consequences. The pandemic has – in this way – revealed the imbalance in our focus on mental health compared to physical illness.

Many countries and health care systems have already made efforts to counter the negative mental health effects of the pandemic.

In Denmark, the Government and parliament during Covid reached a broad agreement to fund NGOs that help and support people who have developed mental health issues as a result of Covid.

The Danish Government plans to increase efforts on these and other psychiatric issues in an upcoming 10-year plan for psychiatry and mental health that follows from Covid.

As you embark on extensive discussions over the next three days, it is reassuring to see that addressing mental health has a prominent place on the agenda.

As one of the flagship initiatives of the European Programme of Work, the forthcoming launch of the Mental Health Coalition will give much needed impetus to increase support and investment in mental health services, now required more urgently than ever.

Another flagship initiative in focus this year, is the Immunization Agenda 2030. Immunization has long been a focus of my advocacy work with the WHO Regional Office for Europe, but COVID-19 has placed vaccines centre stage, and impacted immunization programmes in multiple ways.

We all know the power of vaccines – how they offer a safe and effective means to eliminate many diseases, and thus prevent suffering that can permanently alter or take lives.

You and your ministries have already done much to ensure that routine immunization coverage continues across the European Region.

It is a testament to your intense efforts to maintain or catch-up on life-saving childhood vaccine programmes, that routine coverage has only fallen by 1% between 2019 and 2020, despite COVID-19 restrictions.

Yet large coverage variations between and within countries hidden by this small decrease remains a challenge, as well as missed doses.

And measles continues to be endemic in many countries around the world and will resurge wherever there are vulnerable people to infect, and where vaccine courage is too low. We cannot allow the pandemic to impact children’s health in this way.

The speed at which safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines have been developed is phenomenal, bringing us closer to putting the current pandemic behind us.

The challenges we face now shape future plans. What an opportune moment to launch the European Immunization Agenda 2030, that seeks to build vaccine solidarity among nations, and commitment among people. I look forward to playing my part in supporting this new agenda.

Immunization is one element to set children on a healthy path in life. Early childhood development, interventions through home visits, pre-school education, good feeding practices and the removal of environmental threats strengthen that foundation.

The Regional Office has tools available to guide the development and revision of policies and action plans to improve the quality and continuity of such services.

Investing in early childhood development is one of the best investments that a society can make for its future. Without it, the mental and physical consequences for children who have been left behind can extend long into adulthood or throughout a lifetime.

Finally, access to sexual and reproductive health is another area experiencing setbacks due to COVID-19.

It is truly concerning that 74% of Member States surveyed reported a disruption to these services during the pandemic, which could have traumatic and far-reaching consequences for huge numbers of women and their families.

The conclusion that logically could be drawn is that a disruption to Reproductive Health care, can result in:

An increase in unplanned pregnancies due to lack of access to prevention.

An increase in mother mortality due to an increase in homebirths and lack of access to skilled birth attendance.

Much work and effort are still required to achieve universal SRH and well-being for all in the European Region.

I remain strongly committed to advocacy efforts for sexual and reproductive health and rights, essential to accelerate progress, reduce large inequalities and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Honourable ministers and distinguished guests, I hope you have productive discussions, share inspiring examples, find ground-breaking solutions, and reach visionary agreements, that will lay the foundation for achieving better health for all, at all ages.

This pandemic has been – and remains - a traumatic time for many. 

Let me close with the words of Victor Hugo once again, who became a poet as a teenager, and spent a lifetime inspiring and entertaining many.

“Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise.”

I wish you all the very best health and happiness.

Thank you.