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Response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a paradigm of crisis management

The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, can be observed in the perspective of a broad security context that is conceptually designated as Global Health Security. Its key purpose adheres to the International Health Regulations, a treaty under the international law that binds States to detect, notify and respond to public health emergencies of international concern.

Global Health Security and the spectrum of biological threats

Health security is one of the main components of the emerging theoretical framework of human security, which establishes a multidimensional analytical framework. It encompasses different components of security: economic security, food security, environmental security, personal security, community security, and political security.

The current situation caused by the pandemic demonstrates the validity of the holistic approach to human security, given that a health threat caused by a biological agent expands its effects in the domain of the various components of human security.

Biological agents, due to their potential of deliberate use, are also recognized as weapons, with international treaties prohibiting their use, such as, the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention prohibit their development, production, and stockpiling. More recently, in 2004, the United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 1540 with the aim of reducing this threat in the context of non-state actors.

The entire spectrum of biological threats encompasses both naturally occurring diseases and accidental or deliberate releases of a biological agent, which blurs the interface between health and security. It signifies the need for reinforcement of international standards aiming to the interoperability between different sectors and international cooperation.

STRATEGY project will specifically address the cross-cutting issues regarding biological threats in the context of the stream 6 – CBRN (chemical biological, radiological and nuclear).

Scaling up the response to COVID-19

The response to COVID-19 can be analyzed through a structured model, scaling up from public health sector activation to whole-of-society engagement. This stepwise response aims to keep the growing pressure of transmission and incidence under control, reducing the impacts of the growing number of patients on the health system.

The opening remarks by the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) at the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of WHO, on May 18, 2020, established an important discursive milestone on the management of the COVID-19 crisis. He highlighted that ‘every country and every organization must examine its response and learn from its experience’. It also underlined the key components that should be a part of every national strategy response portfolio, such as a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society response.

In this context, the response to COVID-19 in most of the countries was based on multisectoral approaches, involving a wide range of entities. The response included inter alia, public health authorities, laboratories, hospitals, first responders, law enforcement agencies, armed forces, civil protection, customs, and border control, highlighting the need for interoperability.

Pandemic preparedness and response is grounded by frameworks derived from the Global Health Security conceptualization, and includes prevention, preparedness, detection, response, mitigation, and recovery activities that share common features with the crisis management cycle. The STRATEGY project plays an important role by streamlining and validating interoperability in systems and procedures.

Author: Júlio Gouveia-Carvalho, Unidade Militar Laboratorial de Defesa Biológica e Química – Exército Português