COVID-19: Interview with Plamen Manushev on Bulgarian military observations, practices, and lessons.

26 June 2020

In the NATO PA’s latest COVID-19 interview, Plamen Manushev, Head of the Bulgarian Delegation to the NATO PA, presents his views on four crucial questions:

“At the beginning of our interview I would like to say that the Bulgarian Government and the Ministry of Defence has responded timely and adequately in the COVID-19 situation. All the MoD’s structures with their respective expertise have been involved in order for precaution measures and actions to be taken in time, with no impact on readiness and training of the forces and units, including those committed to the NATO Response Force (NRF). Timely rotation of the Bulgarian contingents abroad was assured, with no cases of COVID-19 affected personnel. The planning process for military support to civilian authorities in the evolving COVID-19 situation was promptly performed and family of plans was created on the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.”
Plamen Manushev, Head of the Bulgarian Delegation to the NATO PA

4 questions with Plamen Manushev:

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

In a crisis like this any help is more than welcome. That means that we must not only ask for support but also be ready to support our allies and partners. 

The current pandemic poses a serious challenge not only to our health systems, but also to our security and ability to react swiftly and in a coordinated manner. On numerous occasions Allies and partners demonstrated unity, solidarity and resolve in their actions to fight together the COVID-19 challenge. 

An example of an extraordinary joint effort was the delivery of 568,000 KN95 masks, suits, and diagnostic kits from China to Bulgaria on 17 April 2020. The NATO-supported Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) made the flight possible. This mission was a strong message to our public that NATO is there to provide support in a time of unprecedented crisis. 

Bulgaria also submitted a request for international assistance to the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) in order to facilitate the transport of additional protective and medical equipment from China to Bulgaria.

In the meantime, and in the spirit of solidarity, Bulgaria provided support to other Allies and partners in the fight against COVID-19. We supported the Army of the Republic of North Macedonia with locally produced kits of medical clothing and masks for better protection against the coronavirus. So far, our country has provided a total of 600 reusable protective clothing sets to the Republic of North Macedonia, which provides protection for first and second-line medical workers for 30,000 working days. We also donated protective equipment to Allies Montenegro and Albania. Bulgaria has already distributed protective clothing to Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, and Iraq to help the fight with the pandemic. All the donations are part of our support to the 12 countries in the Western Balkans, the Eastern Partnership and the Southern Neighbourhood. Moreover, the initiative also includes the distribution of a total of 4,150 sets of protective clothing and 5,336 food packages. 

The Bulgarian Air Force executed a flight on 2 March 2020 from Bulgaria to France to transport two French citizens evacuated from China.

Additionally, there were some indications in order to support the most affected NATO members to be activated the Combined Joint CBRN Defense Task Force (CJ-CBRND-TF) which is an essential part of the NRF. As we have one multifunctional CBRN platoon as a part of CJ-CBRND-TF, we fully understand our responsibilities to the rest of the member states. 

As information sharing among NATO is vital to the success, the Temporary MoD Working Group to share information with SHAPE and EU Military Staff in regard to the current epidemic COVID-19 situation in Bulgaria was created.

In Bulgaria the Armed Forces have executed flights of military transport airplanes in order to provide evacuation of personnel and medical supply/resupply. 
Additionally, field hospitals have been set up in five areas in the country. I think the COVID-19 crisis reaffirms the strength and potential of NATO to cope with a severe crisis that heavily impacts all the member countries.

We should not forget that the primary NATO goal is collective defence and our Armed forces as backbone of NATO power more or less were not fully prepared to react. However, in a very short time NATO responded adequately to the situation. 

As an example, the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense representatives:
- Regularly participated in expert videoconferences and webinars aimed at exchanging views and opinions on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on security and defence in regional, European, and worldwide aspects. 
- On a daily basis receive and study the information about the reactions of our NATO Allies to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on the contribution of the armed forces in support of civilian structures. In that context, a non-paper was drafted on the contribution of the Bulgarian Armed Forces to the fight against COVID-19, which has been distributed among the EU Member States. 
- In the course of the state of emergency, maintain a constant exchange of information with the Permanent Representation of the Republic of Bulgaria to the EU, the Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Bulgaria to NATO as well as with MoD’s representatives in NATO structures outside the country, including on issues related to the protection of the health and lives of personnel. 

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

This is really an important question. We allocate a lot of money in our Armed Forces not only to assure our independence and protect our values but also to use that power to support our nations and civilian authorities in a time of natural disaster and crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic once again proves that we must keep our forces ready to react effectively in any conditions, at war or peace. 

The armed forces have always been a vital part of overcoming different crises. The pandemic has largely challenged society's view of the role of the armed forces. However, our militaries have showcased that they are indispensable through their vital contributions to civilian authorities' responses in containing the spread of COVID-19. Whether distributing food and medical equipment or building field hospitals, the armed forces were always ready. They are trained to react quickly in highly dangerous conditions, and they can carry out missions of repatriation and evacuation of citizens, and execute high-speed transport of medical supplies, protective equipment and patients. 

In the light of the above, we must continue to work on joint coordination through training and exercising allied forces to improve our responses, while including more elements of pandemic scenarios. In view of the implications of the COVID-19 crisis, NATO is taking the necessary steps to adequately respond to similar crises in the short and long run. The Alliance should be well prepared for a potential second wave and for pandemics in general. We should look for complementarity between military and civilian capabilities, thus bolstering our resilience and civil preparedness. We should ensure the survivability of critical services and the protection of key industries. We should prevent such crises from becoming a security crisis. Furthermore, COVID-19 demonstrated the need for a swift reorganisation of various sectors in order to support the health systems in our countries. In that sense, the timely involvement of the defence industry could save us valuable time and prevent the dependency on external suppliers of medical equipment, which some countries have suffered from. Next, we should not forget the valuable role of the armed forces of our partners. The current crisis has demonstrated how important our partnerships are. Our partners not only took part in joint initiatives, but also contributed substantially to the overall response to COVID-19. Last but not least, we should have in mind the post-crisis economic projections, which indicate that the pandemic will have an impact on the defence sector as well. However, we should remember the various strengths of our militaries and continue to build upon them with the necessary resources. 

We highly welcome the creation of the COVID-19 Task Force led by SHAPE. It has been created to coordinate and integrate NATO actions in order to support member states’ responses to the pandemic situation. We fully understand and agree that the COVID-19 Task Force must remain active as we could face a possible second wave of the virus over Europe and respectively over NATO territory and population.
Here are some lessons that we have identified in Bulgaria from a military point of view:
-    Immediate actions in a case of biological outbreak must be taken even prior to the response of civilian authorities in order to assure less impact over military structures, forces, and units.
-    Forces Training has to be immediately prioritised with a focus on small size unit training with no mix of personnel from different units. 
-    NRF units have to be top priority in order for NATO readiness and response to be assured.
-    Military medical structures and expertise have to be available in the force structures with proper equipment and readiness.
-    Information sharing, timely support, and common tactics, techniques, and procedures between military and civilian structures are vital for success not only in a respective country but also in all of NATO’s and it’s partners’ community. 
-    CBRN units have to be fully involved in military options to respond and support civilians in a biologic outbreak scenario. However, they have to be properly equipped and trained as different biological threat need different respond.

III.    As the Alliance is faced with an unprecedented and multifaceted crisis, some actors might exploit this crisis to their advantage, but other challenges and threats have not disappeared. Indeed, some actors could exploit this crisis to their own ends. What should Allies and NATO watch out for, and how can we ensure that the Alliance remains ready to respond?

The pandemic has also challenged the society's view of NATO’s role in the current non-military crisis. Still, NATO instruments and mechanisms were put to use and demonstrated the strong unity and solidarity among Allies. NATO has provided vital assistance to Allies and partners through EADRCC, NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA), strategic airlifts, rapid air mobility, etc. Thus, NATO successfully ensured the swift provision of essential equipment and supplies. We have showed resilience and the ability to adapt and respond to challenges in an unprecedented environment. 

One area where we could do more is the public communications domain. COVID-19 was a stress-test for our public communications capabilities that were among the first responders in handling the proper transmission of information to our citizens. We observed other actors actively using the public domain in order to spread disinformation and propaganda, and abusing possible weaknesses, thus trying to undermine the unity and solidarity between Allies and to erodethe trust in democracy. NATO should continue to devote efforts to resist and counter such carefully crafted strategies through a proactive approach. 

We should assess in-depth the impact of misleading messages and disinformation and continue to strengthen our capabilities in the public communications, cyber, and hybrid domains. 

The EU could be an indispensable partner in this endeavour. Therefore, we should also better coordinate our efforts with the EU through possible joint narratives, communication strategies, and joint communication channels.
Horizon scanning, preparedness, training, and information sharing are vital in order to be ready to respond adequately in a future crisis like COVID-19. In first place off course, I think that the lessons learned process must be executed in order to understand where the gaps exist, what has to be improved and how to respond. 

An analysis of the COVID-19 crisis impact on the security and defence domain must be done in order to understand what NATO should be ready to face.

That will be a difficult task, for sure, but NATO has already proved that is flexible, adaptable, and fully understands the current and future threats. So, I think that at the end of the day NATO will have its lessons learned and all measures will be taken on time.

To assure proper and adequate responses to other security challenges and related threats, the Bulgarian Armed Forces, despite the negative effect of COVID-19 situation, continues to maintain full readiness to react in support of the Ministry of the Interior’s activities to counter any kind of terrorist attack and to protect the outer frontier of the European Union from illegal migrants crossing.

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

On 13. March 2020, in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, the National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria approved a State of Emergency regime for the duration of one month.

Until 29 March, all schools, kindergartens, shopping centres, restaurants, etc. - everything but pharmacies, food, and drug stores were to suspend operations. Suspended also were all sporting events, conferences and seminars, museums, theatres, concerts, etc.

Employers were obliged to provide for telework, where possible, and a heightened sanitary regime for all other personnel. All medical consultations for women and children were suspended, as well as planned surgeries and hospital visitations.

The period of these measures was subject to extensions, depending on the epidemiology of Covid-19.

On 10 March 2020, the President of the National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria issued new regulations, effective immediately, in addition to the Government's measures to contain the spread of Covid-19.

1)    The plenary sessions at the National Assembly, as well as work of the Parliamentary Committees, were to continue with restricted access for outside personnel, wherever and whenever possible.

2)    All foreign business travel was cancelled for members of parliament and staff.

3)    The issuance of one-time passes for entering all Parliamentary premises was suspended. Exception was made only for approved participants in the work of the plenary sessions and committees, as well as members of the media.

4)    All scheduled events on Parliamentary premises, including cultural and educational events, round tables, seminars, etc. were suspended.

5)    Access to the buffets and canteens at the Parliamentary buildings was prohibited for outside personnel.

6)    Numerous sanitary measures were applied throughout the Parliamentary premises (too many to list here, but down to disinfecting keyboards of ATM and coffee machines, elevator buttons,
etc. every 2 hours)

These measures are in effect until further notice. The Bulgarian Parliament voted on 26 March to suspend all plenary sessions for the duration of the State of Emergency, which has been extended to 13 April.

The National Assembly would not consider anything other than issues directly related to the emergency regime. Parliamentary control was reviewed in written form and work in the standing committees continued under restrictive protocols.
The members of the Bulgarian parliament had renounced their salaries in favour of the National Health Insurance Fund, to be empathetic with the economic hardship resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The parliamentary decision was in effect also for the senior members of the Government - Ministers and staff from their political cabinets. This provision was for the duration of the State of Emergency regime, which expired on 13 May. The Decision was adopted on 6 April and covers the heads of State Agencies.

The members of Parliament renounced 100% of their salaries - the funds to be redistributed by the Health Ministry. However, the political groups in Parliament still receive additional funds for each of their members, which can be redistributed to the deputies to cover expenses, such as payments for staff, documentation management, etc.