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NATO Defense Ministers Discuss Alliance's COVID-19 Response

April 15, 2020 | BY Jim Garamone , DOD News

NATO defense ministers have reviewed the alliance's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and agreed upon the next steps to take, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Stoltenberg held a virtual news conference in Brussels today after an online meeting of alliance defense ministers. Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper attended the defense ministers meeting from his Pentagon office.

Alliance members are cooperating in reacting to the pandemic just as if an enemy had attacked a NATO member, the secretary general said. "COVID-19 represents an unprecedented challenge to our nations," he added. "It has a profound impact on our people and our economies, and it is imposing historic shocks on the international system, which could have long-term consequences."

Man strikes gavel as multiple screens show remotely located participants.
Ministers' Meeting
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg opens a virtual meeting of the alliance’s defense ministers to discuss the response to the coronavirus pandemic and the way forward, April 15, 2020.
Photo By: NATO
VIRIN: 200415-O-ZZ999-0001C

Allied officials planned against the pandemic and looked to the lessons that can be taken from the reaction to the viral plague, Stoltenberg said. He noted that in each country, the military is playing a key role in support of civilian efforts against the pandemic. "And using NATO mechanisms, allies have been helping each other to save lives," he added.

The NATO command — led by the supreme allied commander for Europe, Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters — was tasked with coordinating military support among the 30 allies. The general briefed the defense ministers on the NATO response.

"Military forces from across the Alliance have flown more than 100 missions to transport medical personnel, supplies and treatment capabilities, facilitated the construction of 25 field hospitals, added more than 25,000 treatment beds and deployed over 4,000 military medical personnel in support of civilian efforts," Stoltenberg said. "Today, I encouraged all allies to make their capabilities available so General Wolters can coordinate further support."

He said the pandemic is in different stages of infection in different NATO nations. This means that effectively coordinating resources makes a real difference, he said.

Service members carry boxes from an aircraft.
International Assistance
Military medics from Croatia, Germany and the Netherlands arrive in Lithuania to assist in NATO's COVID-19 prevention efforts.
Photo By: NATO photo
VIRIN: 200414-O-ZZ999-001

The pandemic is not the only concern for the NATO leaders, as missions of deterrence and defense must continue, Stoltenberg said.

"The bottom line is that security challenges have not diminished because of COVID-19," he said. "On the contrary, potential adversaries will look to exploit the situation to further their own interests. Terrorist groups could be emboldened."

The security situations in Afghanistan and Iraq remain fragile, and Russia continues its pace and threats, Stoltenberg noted. 

"We must maintain our deterrence and defense because our core mission remains the same: to ensure peace and stability," the secretary general said. "While we continue to take all the necessary measures to protect our armed forces, our operational readiness remains undiminished, and our forces remain ready, vigilant and prepared to respond to any threat."

The alliance also is actively guarding against state and nonstate disinformation stemming from the pandemic. U.S. officials said that Russia has been using the crisis to its own ends and wants the United States to abandon NATO and weaken the alliance. 

"We are countering these false narratives with facts and with concrete actions," Stoltenberg said. "We are also working even closer with allies and the European Union to identify, monitor and expose disinformation, and to respond robustly."

A building with a circle of flags in front of it.
NATO Headquarters
NATO Headquarters, Brussels
Photo By: NATO photo
VIRIN: 200414-D-XT155-003

The defense ministers also looked at the long-term implications of the coronavirus, as the geopolitical effects of the pandemic could be significant, Stoltenberg said.

"Some may seek to use the economic downturn as an opening to invest in our critical industries and infrastructure, which in turn may affect our long-term security and our ability to deal with the next crisis  when it comes," he said.

It is still early to draw conclusions from these long-term discussions, Stoltenberg said, and discussions about them will continue. The defense ministers did agree, however, on a set of recommendations to strengthen the alliance's resilience.

Alliance members will update existing baseline requirements for civil preparedness, based on the lessons from the crisis. They also pledged to work even closer with international partners, Stoltenberg said.

NATO has adapted to change throughout its history and will continue to do so, Stoltenberg said. NATO was laser-focused on countering the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but adapted to the change once that threat dissolved. It changed again in response to the Balkan crisis and to the attack on the United States by terrorists in 2001. It changed yet again when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and continues to wage war in eastern Ukraine. 

The pandemic is another enemy, he said, and the alliance will adapt. But that doesn't mean the alliance will be the first responder for the crisis.

A man stands behind a lectern at a virtual meeting while a remotely located participant shows on a nearby screen.
Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg answers a question at a news conference that followed a virtual meeting of the alliance’s defense ministers, April 15, 2020.
Photo By: NATO
VIRIN: 200415-O-ZZ999-0002

"We should support the civilian efforts to fight this health crisis," the secretary general said. "We see around the whole world and across all NATO allies that military personnel are playing a key role in the fight."

Military airlift has been essential in the fight against the coronavirus, and military personnel are doing everything from disinfecting public spaces to controlling border crossings. NATO is helping to mobilize and coordinate support to NATO allied countries.

The main lesson so far is "a close link between the civilian efforts to fight the health crisis and the ability of the military to support those efforts," the secretary general said. "That's exactly what we also have to look into how we can do even better when the next crisis hits us," he added.

NATO cannot change its core responsibility to defend member states, but there are good reasons to look into how to further strengthen the cooperation between the civilian society combating a health crisis and military capabilities providing support to those civilian efforts, he said.