NATO’s response to COVID-19

Key political workstrands and early lessons

/ By Ambassador Bettina Cadenbach, Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

On 10 March of this year, when I was wrapping up a business trip to Washington, DC, and returning to Brussels, the initial consequences of COVID-19 were already present. Some of my interlocutors already preferred to do a “corona bow” instead of a more traditional handshake. However, it was only a couple of days after, when Belgium and other NATO Allies, as well as partners, declared a lockdown in response to the rapid spread of the virus, that most of us truly grasped the im- mense impact of the pandemic. At the start of 2020, it was difficult to imagine that a virus would turn into an unprecedented stress test for the political and social fabric of our countries, our economies and indeed our very way of life. But this is exactly what has happened and we continue to deal with its consequences.

Time will tell whether the COVID-19 pandemic is a turning point in world history, a catalyst for trends that were already apparent before, or if it will allow us to continue our lives more or less as before. But COVID-19 has already made clear that pandemics can have far-reaching implications for the security of our own nations and the stability of the world around us, and that also NATO needs to continue to adapt to meet those risks and challenges.

Strong security and mutual support

From the beginning of the pandemic, NATO’s overriding objective has been to prevent the health crisis from turning into a security crisis. Individually and collectively, the thirty member nations of the Alliance have taken all the necessary measures to provide strong deterrence and defence, sending a clear message to any outside actor who might have been tempted to take advantage of the situation. We have bolstered the posture of our military forces. We have sustained our Alliance operations and missions abroad, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo. Key NATO exercises have been maintained, albeit in a reduced format. Moreover, since the beginning of the outbreak, NATO has used its full range of tools in supporting national and international civilian efforts in response to the pandemic. So far, some 350 flights have delivered hundreds of tons of critical supplies around the world. Almost half a million troops have supported the civilian response, constructing almost 100 field hospitals, securing borders and helping with testing. All of this has helped save lives.

We have strengthened our Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre as a central platform for assistance requests, not just from Allies but also from partners and international organizations. We activated the special Rapid Air Mobility mechanism to facilitate the unimpeded air transport of medical supplies across Europe.

To ensure NATO is prepared for a possible second wave of COVID-19, Allies have agreed on a new plan — Operation Allied Hand, which involves setting up a stockpile of medical equipment, and a new fund for the quick acquisition of medical supplies to which many Allies have already offered to contribute. Since the outbreak, the Alliance has demonstrated, once again, its unity and solidarity, as well as intensifying its cooperation with partners. Effective diplomacy has been a critical part of that endeavor.

As the pandemic has also challenged the daily working arrangements within the Alliance, we adapted to these new circumstances by strengthening the use of digital technology to minimize any disruption and ensure business continuity. Over the past months, we have made frequent and effective use of the Alliance’s secure networks, and important lessons have been learned about the value of technology to ensure timely and effective decision-making, including on the high political level, such as the meetings of NATO Foreign and Defence Ministers that were held over secure teleconferences.

The importance of cooperation

Although we are still in relatively early stages of understanding the full scale of the pandemic, we have already learned some important lessons and responded to them.

As the virus spread, most borders were closed. That has clearly been crucial to controlling the pandemic. But it’s also clear it is impossible to keep borders closed forever. And tackling the pandemic requires cooperation between countries, and between international organizations, in unprecedented ways, including through the exchange of data on infection rates and patterns; sharing of best practices in disease prevention and treatment; and sharing crucial protective equipment, beds and medical professionals.

NATO is well placed to contribute to that cooperation, also as a unique platform bringing European and North American Allies together. Of course, NATO’s thirty Allies support each other: that is the definition of the Alliance. But NATO also has a broad network of partnerships with more than forty countries all over the globe. This is built on decades of political consultation and practical cooperation, such as with Australia and Japan, to name just a couple.

We put that network to good use immediately. Our Allies provided help to meet critical needs in such different locations as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Georgia, Iraq, Mongolia and Ghana, by matching requests for support with offers of assistance.

We have immediately stepped up cooperation with the European Union, which has also been very active in responding to the crisis — and with which NATO shares 21 members. Our leadership has been in constant touch. Our staffs have coordinated the efforts of the two organizations, including when it comes to tracking, analyzing and responding to the wave of disinformation surrounding the pandemic; on the impact of the pandemic on our respective missions and operations in theatres where we are both engaged; or regarding various assistance requests in order to ensure the complementarity of our efforts.

In parallel, we have increased our interactions with the United Nations, in particular in assisting the World Health Organization and the World Food Programme, notably on the African continent, as well as with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the World Bank.

Preparing for the future

Even as we address the immediate crisis, we have to prepare for the future. With commonplace travel, high urbanization and population density, the world is vulnerable to continuing threat from this virus, and potentially from other similar threats. We need to become more resilient and better prepared — and that preparation includes engagement with our partners, sharing of lessons learned, building resilient societies, and strengthening our defences against biological threats.

With regard to resilience, it is clear that our systems need to be examined and strengthened. Enhancing resilience and reinforcing national crisis management facilities is now more prominent than ever and NATO is stepping up to its work in this field. In this spirit, Allies recently took decisions to strengthen NATO’s “Baseline requirements for civil preparedness”, taking greater account of cyber threats, the security of our supply chains, and the consequences of foreign ownership and control of critical infrastructure.

Learning lessons from this crisis is a large process that underlines the key importance of cooperation among Allies as well as partners as the pandemic impacts us all and where we all have important practices and lessons to share. We have already begun this broad consultative process, to our mutual benefit, as we look to the future.

Those lessons will include strengthening our defences against biological threats. NATO already has several tools in place to strengthen the capabilities of Allies and partners in this area. NATO Centres of Excellence for CBRN Defence in the Czech Republic and for Military Medicine in Hungary provide training to Allied and partner personnel in all aspects of defending against these threats and mitigating the consequences of their use. NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Programme funds numerous scientific and technical projects to advance human knowledge and improve our ability to understand and defeat CBRN challenges. Finally, the NATO Science and Technology Organization oversees a collaborative network of some 6,000 scientists across all Allies and our partner network, which has been mobilised to share knowledge and jointly address the complex technical questions which surround the most pressing CBRN threats, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that some threats respect no borders, open or closed. NATO will work with the broadest possible network of partner countries and organisations, to provide urgent support, to learn lessons, to build resilience, to defend against future biological threats, and to defend the open societies, economies and systems which Allies value so highly. This is a trying time for the whole world: we will pass this test together.


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