COVID-19: Interview with Lydia Mutsch on integrating foreign policy and public health & collective response coordination

29 May 2020

In its latest interview series, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly caught up with Lydia Mutsch, Head of the Luxembourg Delegation to the NATO PA, who highlights the vital work of parliamentarians in tackling the pandemic and its consequences and shares her perspective on enhancing Allies collective response and incorporating public health in foreign policy and security matters.

Four questions with Lydia Mutsch: 

I.    Allied efforts to provide resources and humanitarian assistance to the hardest-hit countries have been critical in helping Allies and partners cope with this unprecedented crisis. Could you tell us how Luxembourg has used NATO structures to help others and how the country benefitted from the help of other Allies during the crisis?

NATO’s various structures and tools, inter alia the Euro-Atlantic Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) and the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA, which has its headquarters in Luxembourg), proved invaluable in providing relief and assistance among Allies and to other partners. 

Luxembourg both provided help and benefited from these structures that allow the Allies to operationalise solidarity. 

Within the framework of the EADRCC, Luxembourg responded to a request by Spain and donated 1.440 kilos of TYVEK material to make protective equipment for healthcare providers. 

Reciprocally, the NSPA dispatched a NATO field hospital to Luxembourg within 24 hours of the request. Multiple tents were erected jointly by a team of experts from the NSPA and the Luxembourg Army next to the centre hospitalier de Luxembourg, thus increasing its capacity by 200 beds. Although luckily, we did not need to use the structure, it provided welcome reassurance at a time of great uncertainty and anxiety with a rapidly rising number of infections.

II.    What other steps should NATO and the Allied armed forces take to support the national and international response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Although the COVID-19 crisis is not military in nature and the enemy remains invisible, NATO clearly has its role to play in responding to the ravages of the pandemic. If properly leveraged, its capacities and command structures will allow it to play an even bigger role. 

It is crucial that Allies learn the lessons from their initial response to the onslaught of the crisis and improve their preparedness for a potential second wave of infections and for possible future pandemics. A quicker, more effective exchange of information will be key to a better, coordinated response. In this context, coordination with the European Union will be essential to ensure that efforts are complementary and to avoid duplication. 

Using the expertise of its Centre of Excellence for military medicine, NATO could increase its capacities in health matters. The Organisation could also explore setting up a global rapid response team, which could be deployed to prevent future health threats and support the emergency response. 

The health crisis can have significant security implications. It can exacerbate existing conflicts, create new tensions, and drive bad actors to increase their nefarious activity. NATO must be ready to curtail these threats.

Allied countries were constantly flooded with mis- and disinformation during the COVID-19 crisis. These are often concerted efforts by malicious actors aiming to undermine the cohesion of populations, thereby fuelling discontent. Allies must tactically and strategically counter such campaigns and narratives and NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence could play a more prominent role in this regard.

NATO should also, where possible, help strengthening the resilience of partners to avoid the emergence of new security concerns. 

Allied countries must protect critical industries from unwelcome investments and take-overs and ensure that critical civilian and military infrastructures remain secure. 

III.    As a former minister of health with extensive experience in public health matters, how can public health considerations be better integrated into national and international security policies and planning?

The United Nations Security Council ruled that a health crisis and its secondary impacts can constitute a threat to international peace and security. Pandemics like COVID-19 can create or exacerbate fragilities with potential consequences for regional and international stability. It is thus crucial that public health is considered as a foreign policy and security issue, although we have to accept that not all health challenges raise security concerns. 

Framing an issue as a security concern usually galvanizes attention, political support, and funding, thus allowing for a more robust response. However, as evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, this is not always enough. While the global nature of the COVID-19 crisis has become painfully obvious, it has not yet given rise to a globally coordinated response. The lack of global leadership has compounded these efforts.

We should learn our lessons from the COVID-19 crisis and revaluate the importance of public health considerations in foreign policy and international security planning. 

Prevention should be our focus as it saves lives and is also, in the long run, the cheaper option. We should focus on building robust and resilient public health systems across the world that will allow us to detect and contain public health threats as early as possible and prevent them from becoming a security issue in the first place. This could involve establishing a stronger, more proactive international health governance. These efforts will require cross-sector collaboration and interdisciplinary training. 

“The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition”. Almost 70 years after these words were adopted in the Constitution of the World Health Organization, they are more relevant than ever.

Where prevention fails, we must have clear procedures in place to react to the regional or global spread of a disease. International cooperation must prevail to successfully combat a threat that knows no borders and avoid a spill over into the realm of security. 

IV.    What is the role of parliamentarians in this pandemic? And what role can interparliamentary diplomacy, including within the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, play to mitigate this crisis and prepare for the next emergency?

All around the world, governments have taken extraordinary measures to combat the COVID 19 pandemic, including a significant limitation of our fundamental rights and freedoms. Several governments declared a state of emergency offering them far-reaching powers. In this context, the parliamentarians’ role of holding the government to account becomes even more important. Parliaments are also indispensable actors in dealing with the consequences of the pandemic, notably the onset of the economic crisis. That is why it remains crucial that parliaments retain their capacity to act during the pandemic.

Interparliamentary diplomacy plays an important role in the architecture of international cooperation. Assemblies such as the NATO Parliamentary Assembly provide a platform for parliamentarians to exchange experiences, learn each other’s lessons and establish and disseminate best practices. They can develop measures to mitigate a crisis but also have a role to (re-)establish trust between various actors and countries. 

Lydia Mutsch, Head of the Luxembourg Delegation to the NATO PA