NATO and the Coronavirus Response – An Update

29 April 2020

This News Brief provides an update on NATO activities since 17 April in response to COVID-19. For earlier analysis, see: 

  • Extraordinary meeting of NATO Defence Ministers reviews alliance response to the COVID-19 crisis, NATO Watch Briefing No.73, 16 April 2019
  • NATO’s COVID-19 objectives: Improving aid assistance, continuing core security tasks and winning the propaganda war, NATO Watch Briefing No.72, 14 April 2020

Facilitating the delivery of medical supplies

While NATO does not have stockpiles of medical supplies, NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) continues to help with heavy transport, logistics and by matching donors with recipients. Recent transfers include the Netherlands transporting personal protective equipment and medical supplies from China to Montenegro. Similarly, the NATO Support and Procurement Agency has procured protective medical equipment for Spain and Norway. Two NATO-supported strategic airlift programmes recently airlifted Chinese medical supplies to Poland, Bulgaria and Germany.

Spain is the first country to withdraw its request for help from the EADRCC that it placed on 23 March. Although it reportedly received less than 10% of the medical supplies it requested, the Spanish Government argues that it has managed to overcome the peak of the pandemic and that many of the supplies it needed last month have now been covered. Seven countries responded to the Spanish call for aid: the Czech Republic, Turkey, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Luxembourg and Germany. The most valuable donation came from Berlin, in the form of 50 respirators.

Mobilising NATO’s scientific network

NATO is also tapping into its pool of over 6000 national defence scientists – described in a NATO News Release as “the largest such network in the world” - to launch a scientific challenge for solutions in virus detection, improved situational awareness, decontamination, resilience and the post-COVID-19 future. Proposals, from research articles to prototypes, are expected by the end of April.

In addition, the NATO Science and Technology Organization, a small subsidiary body within the alliance (as compared to national science and technology bodies and those within large defence companies),  has set up a classified collaborative platform where scientists from allied and partner nations can share contributions to the crisis response. Exchange of knowledge and potential solutions are also being facilitated by the NATO Collaboration Support Office in Paris, which coordinates relevant research.

Finally, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is the topic of the Spring 2020 Innovation Challenge, organised by the NATO Innovation Hub and the Dutch Ministry of Defence.

Support by NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo

The NATO-led Resolute Support mission is facilitating supplies of personal protective equipment to the Afghan security forces, including to police units in Nuristan, Panjshir and Parwan provinces and to army units in Helmand and Nimroz provinces. The NATO-led KFOR mission in Kosovo has provided assistance to local institutions in Kosovo, including donations of personal protection equipment to hospitals in Pristina and Gracanica.

However, in another potential example of ‘America First’ and unilateral decision-making in Washington, reports suggest that President Trump is pushing for all US troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan as the country faces a major coronavirus outbreak.

Learning lessons

The COVID-19 crisis clearly requires a health care driven response and thus falls largely in the province of the individual NATO member states, and (for some European states) within the shared sovereignty which is delegated to the European Union. NATO has contributed to the development of resilience standards for member states for crises—such as continuity of business for governments, protection of infrastructure, and access to vital resources—and NATO defence ministers recently agreed to begin the process of updating those standards.

One of the key issues has been inadequate public health stockpiles of personal protective equipment in many NATO member states, and the reliance on uncertain supply chains for such equipment. A recent World Trade Organization report says 80 countries have banned or limited the export of face masks, protective gear, gloves and other goods to mitigate shortages since the coronavirus outbreak began.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a recent interview that the pandemic highlights how important it is for members to be resilient and able to rely on their partners for things like equipment and medicines. “I don’t believe every nation can be self-sufficient and produce all kinds of medicines and equipment themselves but I think we as NATO allies have to look into issues like stocks,” he said. “Do we have enough stocks to deal with this crisis, are we too dependent on imports from countries outside the alliance? Some of the homework we have to do after this crisis is to look into how to be less dependent on imports of these kinds of essential equipment”.

Two senior transatlantic think tank leaders have argued that NATO should create public health stockpiles, arguing that “If NATO can stockpile military equipment, it can also stockpile medical equipment on a collective basis, with the guarantee that all partners will make those medical necessities available to others when the need arises”.

While public health stockpiles and supply chain issues are likely to dominate the future debates about how to plan for, mitigate and counter the security challenges arising from pandemics, it is highly questionable as to whether NATO is the most appropriate intergovernmental organization to oversee such a process, partly because of its political-military focus and partly because of its limited membership. Rather, a multilateral civilian, health-centred organisation such as the WHO, or new regional agencies specifically tasked for this purpose, should be in the lead.