COVID-19: Interview with Mihaly Balla on NATO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hungarian contributions, and capturing lessons learnt

24 June 2020

Mihaly Balla, Head of the Hungarian Delegation to the NATO PA, discusses NATO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and continuing adaptation for a possible second wave as well as the contributions Hungary has offered bilaterally and through NATO to Allies and partners, including through institutions and efforts hosted in Hungary.

4 questions with Mihaly Balla:

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

NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC), as the Alliance’s principal civil emergency response mechanism, plays a crucial role in NATO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Centre coordinates both requests and offers of assistance between Allies, partners, and others as well. As our national response proved successful, Hungary did not need to request assistance over the course of this crisis, but we used this mechanism when we provided support to some of our Allies and partner nations. Altogether, seven Allies, nine partners, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) have requested international assistance through EADRCC. 

Bilaterally Hungary has delivered shipments of protective equipment to several NATO countries (Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania) and partner countries (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova). These activities were carried out in full conformity with the related NATO policies, and in line with Hungary’s priority to support the stability and the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans.
The Hungarian contributions have enhanced our bilateral relations and contributed to better coordination inside multilateral fora. They have also reconfirmed our strong commitment to taking an active part in international efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and to lend a helping hand to those in need.

Allied efforts were also assisted through the Strategic Airlift Capability, and as the host nation of this important initiative that provides NATO with a much-needed capability, we were always proud when we saw aircraft taking off from Pápa airbase.

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

NATO has a supportive role in case of a global pandemic, and its primary objective is to ensure that the health crisis does not become a security crisis. Therefore, the most important task of NATO is to maintain the credibility of its deterrence and defence posture as well as to preserve its ability to function. The Alliance has handled this new situation successfully, supporting its member states using existing capabilities and mechanisms as well as adapting to the challenge by strengthening resilience and enhancing preparedness for a potential second wave of the pandemic. The measures taken so far are well underway, like the Pandemic Response Plan or other ongoing COVID-related NATO workstrands, are sufficient to prepare the Alliance for the next challenge, but it is important to stress that these are in part based on successful national measures as well. As an organisation based on solidarity, NATO must also support national and international efforts responding to the health crisis based on requests from concerned parties. 

III.    Hungary hosts the NATO Centre of Excellence for Military Medicine, a multinational military organisation working for and accredited by NATO. How does the Centre contribute to the effort to contain the coronavirus, in particular through its medical experts, training and advice functions, and through its coordination role?

The Budapest-based NATO Centre of Excellence for Military Medicine (MILMED COE), despite being a scientific organisation, has put great effort into assisting NATO and its partners in the struggle against the pandemic. Since January, it has prepared and published 47 situation assessments, available on their website for a wide audience, and prepared reports for Allied use as well. 

The COE website also hosts a wealth of information regarding the pandemic, curated by Hungary’s Force Health Protection Branch. The COE also routinely advises the NATO Strategic Commands on Force Health Protection questions, ranging from risk assessments about countries or NATO Missions to travel guidance, testing policies, and best practices. It has built up an active working group about COVID-19, with weekly VTCs and a fully supported electronic platform to share information securely with the group, which includes the representatives of the Strategic Commands, medical advisors of NATO Missions and multiple Force Health Protection and epidemiological experts. 

Moreover, the COE began to collect observations on the overall management of the pandemic, to feed the Lessons Learned process, which is amplified greatly by hosting and managing the working group as well. (Their thematic website can be reached at https://www.coemed.org/resources/COVID19)

The Hungarian Defence Forces’ participation in the fight against the epidemic with providing assistance and coordinating logistical support is exemplary (i.e., by delivering protective equipment to hospitals and by disinfecting nursing homes with the assistance of chemical protection specialists).

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?

National parliaments play a critical role in enhancing resilience against health emergencies like COVID-19. Parliaments can establish legislative measures to govern, enable, and support risk management measures. In times of crisis, in order to fight the pandemic, parliaments have a duty to ensure that all measures taken result in enhanced protection and support of the most vulnerable. These measures require greater parliamentarian awareness and responsibility.

In Hungary, our Parliament continued to meet for sessions even during the state of danger and retained full legislative competence. The state of danger has already been asked by the government of Hungary to be revoked, and we take with some satisfaction the success of our combat against the COVID-19 pandemic.

This global pandemic has also highlighted the importance of interparliamentary cooperation. The NATO PA continues to provide a cooperation framework for exchanging views also on this crisis, on national and multilateral responses and for sharing best practices to mitigate and fight the current crisis, and to prevent and prepare for a next one. It may thus contribute to combating situations like the COVID-19 pandemic in a more effective manner.

We may thus also state that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly remains an essential platform to strengthen solidarity and cooperation between NATO nations and the Alliance and ensure visibility for the public.

Members of Parliament engage in voluntary activities in their epidemic-affected constituencies. They help local authorities in implementing protective measures, they are constantly coordinating with the mayors of municipalities and with local communities, and they provide assistance in remedying problems if they arise.


Mihaly Balla, Head of the Hungarian Delegation to the NATO PA

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