Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief following COVID-19

Image Source: United States Department of Defense

Jeff Payne, NESA Center

Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HADR) operations are a constant within multilateral security cooperation.  Rarely controversial, these operations bolster nation states against emergencies by deepening and routinizing international partnerships and are often seen as a mechanism for building inter-operability amongst state security services while enhancing other forms of security cooperation.  Unfortunately, the Covid-19 global pandemic exposes weaknesses to HADR operations around the world.  Too often such operations lack sufficient attention among senior leaders and too many within the security cooperation community use HADR as a tool to pursue other strategic aims.  Following the current pandemic, HADR operations need to be reinforced.

HADR operations took on greater prominence following a range of international crises, with a tipping point reached during the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.  States around the world took specific lessons from that period.  Namely, that early warning systems are a necessity, that the sharing of information during crises is essential, and that specialized training must be stood up to rally international support.  Numerous states successfully stood up regular exercises for international partners to prepare to respond to crisis scenarios.  Militaries, police forces, and other security providers around the world highlighted the investments made in HADR operations and praised progress made with international partners.

Despite progress , problems emerged that remained unaddressed prior to the current pandemic.  One problem facing HADR operations is that political prominence attached to such operations has diminished.  HADR operations became routine within security cooperation conversations.  Senior leaders focused on the mechanics of HADR less and less in favor of addressing other security cooperation challenges.  Interoperability between militaries, national police, and other security forces became a higher priority for several states.  HADR conversations became a means to address larger challenges.

HADR operations are successful when states bring all resources to the fore.  From senior leaders to operators on the ground there exist shared aims and a detailed response plan.  Ties among operators have not waned.  There are still hundreds of annual training exercises, workshops, and seminars designed to enhance communication among security providers and strengthen the ability of first responders to make an impact during a crisis situation.  The current pandemic shows that senior leaders need to recommit to HADR.  This outbreak of the novel Coronavirus is a reminder of the value of HADR.  Such operations can most certainly lead to other forms of security cooperation, but HADR has value in and of itself.  Senior leaders in many countries, including the United States, need to remain invested in supporting the tools needed to respond to partners in distress.  This means that operators need to maintain their networks and history of cooperation, but it also means that budgets need to reflect the inevitability of crisis situations and that adequate protocols exist within government structures to empower operators to respond to those in need.  HADR cooperation is an irreplaceable component of the international system and states around the world should recommit themselves.

The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Department of Defense, the NESA Center or any of United States government components.