An Analysis Of The National Responses To The COVID-19 Pandemic Through The Lens Of Medical Military Support Requirements

Martin Bricknell, Mohamed M Gad, Zenobia Homan, Adrian Gheorghe, Emily Quirk, Joseph Kazibwe

Research output: Book/ReportBookpeer-review


The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the agenda for national governments and
international organisations since January 2020. It has had substantial impact on the health and health systems of NATO members, with the armed forces making an important contribution to national crisis response. Measures taken to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the health of armed forces personnel have also affected military operations, exercises and routine training.
Concurrently, there is a concern that some states or malign actors may use the disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis to advance their interests and create further instability within the international system. Finally, the economic impact of the pandemic may reduce investment by NATO members into their security and defence as a result of both reductions in overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and relative prioritisation towards investment in economic recovery and welfare support.
This project is the first part of a programme of work led by the Medical Branch of Allied Command Transformation to draw forth the salient lessons and required capabilities from the COVID-19 crisis into future conceptual and capability developmental activities for military medical services in support of future large scale warfighting operations. This analysis takes an external and comparative perspective to open source information published on the internet of national
responses, both civil and military, to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study was based on 4 components: a review of the Committee of the Chiefs of Military Medical Services (COMEDS) survey of NATO military medical services’ responses to COVID-19 conducted in April 2020; a case study analysis of the military contribution to the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic in six European countries with the highest COVID-19 mortality rate (Belgium, Spain, France, UK, Italy, Sweden); a case study analysis of the military contribution to the
national response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 4 large non-European states (China, United States, Russia and Brazil); and a case study analysis of the impact of COVID-19 crisis on security policy and activities of multilateral organisations (the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU) and NATO).
These case study analyses are based on a GoogleTM search for the first 100 website hits in English using the search terms “Country AND covid-19 AND (military OR army OR security)” for the period 01 January to 31 July 2020 augmented by a detailed review of press releases by the Ministries of
Defence for each country or each organisation.
All of the countries and organisations studied were significantly affected by the COVID-19 crisis in the Spring of 2020. In the initial phase of the outbreak, their armed forces assisted with the repatriation and quarantine of nationals from Wuhan and other countries affected by local outbreaks or restrictions of movement (e.g. outbreaks in cruise ships). The next priority for the armed forces was to protect the health of their personnel by mirroring wider public health measures but tailoring these to the military context. This reduced or stopped many planned military activities, including reducing national contributions to multi-national security operations. When local transmission of COVID-19 within countries became established, the armed forces became a vital component of national crisis planning and response. The analysis within this report describes the breadth of capabilities that the military provided to support civilian authorities ranging from planning assistance, general logistics support, assistance with public order policing, and a wide variety of specific medical capabilities. Whilst there are some common activities between all countries, it is the differences that provide the most insights. As an example, it is possible to augment the civilian health system with military field hospitals, hospital ships, and temporary hospitals in convention centres or by providing military medical manpower as reinforcements to civilian hospitals. Each option has strengths and weakness, these could be codified through a specific analysis based on a comparison of lessons between countries. All countries used military vehicles (ambulances, helicopters, aeroplanes) and medical teams to assist with the redistribution of COVID-
19 patients. This experience could provide insights into the challenge of medical evacuation during CBRN operations. Finally, countries probably underestimated the importance of the nursing home and social care sector in the pathway of recovery for COVID-19 patients (and the risk of COVID-19 transmission in these settings). Many countries used their military medical services augment this
workforce and to assist with training them in infection, prevention and control (IPC).
The analysis of the data collated about the UN, EU and NATO reinforced concerns reported in the country case studies about the potential impact of the COVID-19 crisis on global security, the conduct of international security and peacekeeping operations, and the contributions (with both money and national contingents) by nations towards these missions. This exposes the potential tension between the sovereign national interests of states and the benefits of collective action through solidarity in multi-lateral organisations. Whilst open source information provides very good examples of information sharing between nations through these organisations, it is less clear what tangible benefits member states actually received from multilateral brokerage rather than bilateral support. It is noticeable that bilateral, military-military medical assistance activities with partner countries are a significant feature of both Chinese and Russian press releases.
Overall, this project is the first structured analysis and comparison of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on armed forces between states. It has used a formal analytic approach to ensure consistency in data capture between states and to provide a foundation for any further research. A considerable volume of information has been detected by the search for each of the case studies. This is likely to be representative of the public activities of armed forces, though there is
variation in the quantity, quality and ease of access of information available between countries.
This analysis has demonstrated the substantial contribution of countries armed forces as part of the national response to the COVID-19 crisis. This civil-military co-operation is a critical part of the resilience of states, though the interdependence of the civil-military capabilities of national health systems may not previously have been considered as a capability driver for military medical
services. The report identifies several areas for further research and interpretation to inform Lessons Learned for NATO and future medical capability planning. The report is valid as an analysis of the case studies for the Spring/Summer of 2020. At the time of writing, cases of COVID-19 were rising again in NATO member countries. There would be value in repeating this analysis in the summer of
2021 to compare the findings in this report.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationNorfolk, Virginia
PublisherNATO Allied Command Transformation
Number of pages100
Publication statusPublished - 11 Mar 2021


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