Defence ministers from NATO nations agreed today to stockpile medical equipment — and to ask member nations to contribute to an emergency fund to buy even more supplies — as the alliance braces for a second wave of the pandemic.
Preparations to respond to future pandemic waves preoccupied the ministers during their two-day teleconference meeting, hosted by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels. The COVID-19 crisis even overshadowed what, in normal times, would have been headline-grabbing disagreements among the allies.
At the conclusion of the meeting today, Stoltenberg said NATO has taken every step it can to ensure that the global health crisis does not become a security crisis by supporting the civilian response to COVID-19.
In Canada, that support has manifested itself largely through the deployment of troops into long-term care homes in Ontario and Quebec to backstop overwhelmed care workers.
‘We stand ready’ — Stoltenberg
The defence ministers also agreed today to an updated pandemic operational plan which would build on some actions the alliance has taken during the first wave of the pandemic — such as ferrying medical supplies to hard-hit countries and building field hospitals.
“We stand ready to support each other should a second wave of the pandemic strike,” Stoltenberg told reporters.
Canada and other nations struggled to obtain basic items of pandemic equipment, such as protective masks and ventilators, when COVID-19 first swept around the globe.
Fear of a second wave intensified this week when China imposed travel restrictions on nearly half a million people near Beijing in an effort to contain a fresh outbreak of the virus.
COVID-19 has killed roughly 450,000 people around the world.
In a media statement, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said he assured his NATO colleagues that the engagement of the international community is critical to maintaining security and stability during the pandemic.
Canada supports NATO’s efforts to be better prepared for a possible next wave, including the stockpiling of equipment, he added.
No word from DND about pooling medical supplies
“These extraordinary times remind us of how crucial it is to maintain positive and constructive relationships with our friends and allies,” Sajjan said in the statement. “Continued cooperation and sharing best practices are key to our successful preparation for an uncertain future. We remain committed to providing assistance wherever and whenever we can on the international stage. We will continue to protect our values and support our allies.”
What Sajjan didn’t say was whether the Liberal government was prepared to contribute personal protective equipment and other medical supplies to the international stockpile. He also didn’t say if Canada is willing to help pay for the emergency fund.
A senior official in Sajjan’s office, speaking on background Thursday, said those issues are before Global Affairs Canada.
Global Affairs spokesperson Krystyna Dodds said the government recognizes there are global challenges in securing medical supplies, including personal protective equipment.
“We are committed to working to resolve disruptions to global supply chains to ensure the flow of vital medical supplies to those in need,” she said in an email statement.
The NATO nation defence ministers also discussed the ability of nations to sustain themselves in a crisis, a concept known as “national resilience”.
The pandemic has made national resilience a topic of deep concern in the alliance, and many have warned that the energy, transport and telecommunications sectors are especially vulnerable to cyber attacks.
The pandemic discussions unfolded against a backdrop of other geopolitical and military concerns — including an increasingly vocal dispute between Turkey and France over the various factions that are fighting for control of Libya.
France went into the meeting wanting to talk with NATO allies about what it calls Turkey’s increasingly “aggressive” and “unacceptable” role in Libya.
The government in Ankara, which backs the internationally recognized Libyan government, recently helped repel an assault on Tripoli by the Libyan National Army.
The attack was carried out by a commander, Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia.
France has accused Turkey of violating the international arms embargo against Libya and increasing its military presence in the waters off the North African country.
The rhetoric exchanged by the two nations has been heated.
The allies also grappled with the United States’ decision to reduce its troop presence in Germany as part of a broader Trump administration push to force allies to shoulder more of their own security burdens.
They also discussed the security implications of Russia’s growing suite of nuclear-capable missiles, the deployment of which led to the demise of the INF Treaty last year.