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ASPHER President's Holiday Message: A Happy Festive Season to You All

Publication date: 14.12.2020
Author: John Middleton


May we all, according to our beliefs, enjoy, celebrate, reflect,
share and give in our December festivals (some just passed). 

Wishing you all a very Happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Bodhi day,
Pancha Ganapati, Omisoka, Kwanzaa, Yalda, Zaratosht No Diso,
Yule, Winter Solstice, Universal Human Rights Day and more. 

2020 has been a historic, catastrophic and tragic year with the pandemic exploding into all our lives. Public health has been thrown into the public consciousness – like a referee in a football match, no-one was aware of us until something has gone wrong. Across many countries public health services and systems have been found weakened through years of austerity or allowed to wither because our messages have not been politically popular or sometimes downright annoying. In many cases politicians have been negligent in ignoring warnings on pandemic preparedness. Our politicians have been heroes or villains – with a few in between who found their feet when willing to be helped by public health expertise. We have seen heroic and decisive actions by some countries and we have seen disastrous failures of public protection from many of the populist persuasion. 

There will be a reckoning, an audit, an inquiry, within countries and in international organisations. Lessons will be learned, mistakes will be acknowledged and will have to be prevented from happening again. The biggest lesson for many countries, will be that we must invest in, and expand our capacity and our expertise in public health. We must build systems for public health protection and improvement which recognise and value the multi-disciplinary nature of the public health profession. And we must also celebrate and embrace the public and community role in public health – it is ‘everybody’s business’. 

But I choose here just to celebrate and thank all my colleagues and partners in the great enterprise of public health in the European Region and beyond. You have slaved away tireless through this pandemic year, often unsung, often in the background, or giving the very best of your advice and expertise to those in high places who will listen. There has been great innovation in the field over the past year – and extraordinary hard work converting entire syllabi to online teaching. We have been party to some extraordinary landmark meetings ourselves. The European Public Health Week online meeting in May was a welcome coming together of European partners marking a range of achievements. Congratulations and thanks to the European Public Health Association (EUPHA) for calling us all together in this great piece of solidarity. ASPHER organised a successful online Deans’ & Directors’ Retreat in June, virtually in Sofia, thanks to Professors Tzekomir Vodenicharov and Karolina Lyubomirova. We were online again for the ASPHER General Assembly in September, when we welcomed 10 new members. And ASPHER was strongly in evidence in many sessions of the 16th World Congress on Public Health in October. This was an outstanding event organised at short notice, a great leap into the unknown when the real congress had to be cancelled earlier in the year. One of the key outcomes of this congress is its statement "Public health for the future of humanity: One planet, One people, One health", which is officially supported by ASPHER. Congratulations again to the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA), EUPHA and the Italian Society of Hygiene, Preventive Medicine and Public Health (SItI) with great leadership from ASPHER’s President Elect, Carlo Signorelli and WFPHA’s President Walter Ricciardi. 

ASPHER’s COVID-19 Task Force has produced a growing range of statements and handbooks which are being well received across our membership and in many cases at the highest level of national government. I am extremely grateful for the tireless work of colleagues who have made my task as chair so much easier. Our young professionals group has been a delight and an inspiration, in their work on the COVID Task Force and also in our virtual ASSETS meeting in the summer. We have also driven forward the new Global Network for Academic Public Health with our sister organisations from other WHO Regions of the World. We are particularly grateful for the efforts of Laura Magaña and Dorothy Biberman from the American Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH), for helping us to propel our global agenda forward. 

And we have moved forward the ASPHER strategic 2025 agenda. We have improved and enhanced our internal governance, membership relations and financial procedures and we will be refining our internal rules in the new year. We continue to build on the work of Kasia Czabanowska and Anders Foldspang in embedding tools for competency and curriculum development. Our publication with WHO is a landmark and we intend to develop ever stronger work with WHO including the professionalisation agenda. My thanks to Hans Kluge, Regional Director for WHO-EURO and Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat for their great enthusiasm and support for ASPHER and for their commitment to our joint working. Mary Codd is picking up this mantel and leading for us on a revision of competencies for applied infectious disease epidemiology with ECDC. Our engagement with young professionals will continue – not just through work on projects, but also by including them in the governance of ASPHER and developing a network of students and alumni. We look forward to renewing and building our partnerships with other European public health organisations EUPHA, the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) and EuroHealthNet, and we intend to build also on our work with the International Association of National Public Health Institutes (IANPHI).

Europe faces further uncertainty on the pandemic front as we enter 2021. Vaccines nearly at the door are bringing hope, but it is too soon to let down our guard – vaccine campaigns cannot come quickly enough to prevent our need for further social distancing and non- pharmaceutical protections. We face a cold winter, possible flu, and further COVID. Those of us in the UK now face also the prospect of a crash-out Brexit.

We can be optimistic, but we cannot be joyful at the prospects before us. Keep safe and protect yourselves, your families, your friends and colleagues. And come back renewed in the new year resolved to work better, smarter, not harder, to protect and improve the health of people and planet. 

I would like to offer my thanks for all your support this year, particularly to my colleagues on the ASPHER Executive Board, the COVID-19 Task Force and especially to the ASPHER Secretariat – Robert Otok and Lore Leighton.

And now by way of the traditional Dr J Christmas present, here is an anthem for our time- 'Lean on Me' by Bill Withers, played for you by Dr Harp's Medicine Band. Happy New Year!

Love, Peace,
John Middleton

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