EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič speaks to HEQ about the role of the Commission’s civil protection and crisis handling mechanisms in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič is the Commission’s emergency response co-ordinator, responsible for shoring up the role of the Emergency Response Co-ordination Centre and securing the Civil Protection Mechanism in order to protect and support Member States under stress. While the EU’s civil protection and crisis response protocols have historically been largely deployed to ameliorate the impacts of natural and manmade disasters, such as flooding, wildfires or oil spills, over the last year the bloc’s crisis response capabilities have primarily been focused on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and its wide-ranging effects. Commissioner Lenarčič speaks to HEQ about the role of the Commission’s civil protection and crisis handling mechanisms in addressing the worst impacts of the pandemic.
How has the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism been mobilised to combat the COVID-19 pandemic?
Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM) had been mobilised to help European Union and participating states address natural and manmade disasters like earthquakes, floods, or forest fires. However, from the outset of 2020, the EU has been on the frontline of the fight against the pandemic. Via the UCPM, the EU helped to bring stranded EU citizens home during the shocking first wave and funded the transport of medical teams and transferring patients via the Emergency Support Instrument.
But there was a point where the pandemic also challenged our UCPM. In response to the initial scarcity of personal protective equipment and other vital medical supplies worldwide, we have quickly embarked on a series of practical steps to ensure that no Member State would ever fall behind in case all of them were overwhelmed by the same crisis. We established a new rescEU reserve for life-saving medical equipment – a pool of resources to be distributed to the Member States hit hardest by a medical emergency as a safety net of last resort.
Below are some examples of our assistance:
- During the first wave, via the UCPM, we mobilised European Medical Teams to Italy composed of nurses and doctors. We also helped to dispatch disinfectants, masks and ventilators, and repatriated more than 90,000 EU citizens on EU-funded flights;
- Via rescEU medical reserve, more than one million FFP2 and FFP3 protective facemasks were delivered to Italy, Spain, Croatia, Lithuania, as well as North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia;
- When Czechia requested ventilators in October 2020, this request was fulfilled through a combination of the UCPM – with Austria and the Netherlands sending ventilators to Czechia – and by the dispatch of additional ventilators from the rescEU stockpiles hosted in Romania;
- It is important to understand that the recipient countries can also be donor countries. In November 2020, for example, via the UCPM we have coordinated Czechia’s delivery of masks and gloves to Armenia;
- Under the Emergency Support Instrument, activated in April 2020, the Commission helped Member States with €150m as support for the cargo transport of essential items, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, and disinfectants. It is interesting to note that under the Emergency Support Instrument, EU Member States can still apply for funding for the transfer of patients and the transport of medical personnel; and
- Despite COVID-19-related restrictions, our UCPM also delivered abroad. In the aftermath of the devastating blasts in Beirut, the first EU rescue teams were on the ground in a matter of a few hours; and the Commission managed to swiftly mobilise more than €64m for first emergency needs and protection of critical infrastructure.
All these activities are co-ordinated by our Emergency Response Co-ordination Centre, which works 24/7 to support Member States, participating states and any other country that finds itself in need and cannot address this need alone.
The pandemic has led to an increased need for international humanitarian aid. How can this be reconciled with the sanctions the EU has in place on countries such as Syria and Nicaragua?
Meeting humanitarian needs – including those created or exacerbated by the pandemic – has been recognised as a necessary derogation to the EU sanctions regime. As recently as December 2020, in adopting a decision establishing a global human rights sanctions regime, the EU Member States also agreed to include a humanitarian derogation on assistance including medical supplies, food and the transfer of humanitarian workers. In short, EU sanctions do not hinder the provision of humanitarian aid.
How important is international collaboration and knowledge sharing between Member States, particularly in terms of combating a global pandemic?
No one country, no matter how big, could resolve such crises on its own. That is why the European Union has sought to foster greater co-operation, both at home and globally, from the outset of this unprecedented health urgency.
The pandemic highlighted the need for international collaboration and knowledge sharing in the most urgent manner, in the face of a changing ‘disaster landscape’ that now includes pandemics and other health emergencies. The Union Civil Protection Knowledge Network, which is currently being set up, will further facilitate collection and sharing of knowledge and expertise. The network is also expected to play an important role in strengthening prevention and preparedness in the face of large-scale emergencies.
Before this pandemic erupted, we already had a Disaster Risk Management Knowledge Centre, established within the EU’s Joint Research Centre. It provides EU Member States and the disaster risk management community with data, research and project results and access to a range of networks and partnerships.
Has technological innovation been a significant factor in developing solutions to prevent the spread of infection, for example in the use of telemedicine technology or the collection of patient data?
Technological innovation has been a significant factor in developing solutions to prevent the spread of infection in several ways. One example is the co-operation between Member States and the Commission on the creation of an EU-wide system for interoperability between contact tracing and warning applications in Member States, to exploit the full potential of such apps and break the chain of coronavirus infections across borders.
Additionally, the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of sharing health knowledge and mutual support: national and European networking can help overcome limitations due to scarcity of expertise and geographical barriers. Based on the existing model of the European Reference Networks for rare and complex diseases, the Commission launched the COVID-19 Clinical Management Support System (CMSS), which provides frontline clinicians dealing with COVID-19 with a platform to exchange knowledge and discuss patient cases.
EU Commissioner for Crisis Management