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As the world retreats due to coronavirus, NATO is still holding meetings

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg opens a session during the meeting of Defence Ministerials at NATO Headquarters in Brussels on February 12, 2020.

CODY H. RAMIREZ, U.S. AIR FORCE/NATO

By MICHAEL BIRNBAUM | The Washington Post | Published: March 19, 2020

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BRUSSELS — Deep into the global coronavirus pandemic, NATO is taking an unconventional approach to its daily operations: packing senior leadership into conference rooms to push on with some of its business as usual.

The continued in-person meetings have unsettled some senior diplomats posted to the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels. They prefer that the alliance leaders start following the example across much of the world: communicating by videoconference and further scaling back bureaucratic committee meetings.

After a routine Wednesday meeting of NATO ambassadors and senior leadership packed 150 people into a room, at least one ambassador was seeking coronavirus testing to be made available to delegations, according to two senior NATO diplomats familiar with the worries. The diplomats spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose health concerns within the alliance.

The stiff-upper-lip style has been pushed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who on Thursday said that the alliance needed to continue to project strength throughout the pandemic.

He did, however, conduct the news conference via Skype, a first, to try to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

NATO has struggled with how to balance health precautions with its need to carry on with its daily business of protecting its 29 member nations. There are significant NATO military operations in Eastern Europe, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, all of which require monitoring and maintenance.

NATO is also in the process of formulating a plan to take a greater role in broader Middle Eastern security, which President Donald Trump requested after a U.S. airstrike in January killed a senior Iranian military commander and unsettled the region.

Other international blocs, such as the 27-member European Union, largely have switched over to videoconferencing to carry out meetings amid the crisis.

NATO officials say that the E.U. approach would not work well for their highly classified meetings, in which sensitive military information is shared routinely among allies. Although military commanders in the field communicate with their headquarters and civilian leaders via secure videoconferencing, that approach is not practical for large-scale meetings of diplomats in the North Atlantic Council, the group of ambassadors that runs NATO, said spokeswoman Oana Lungescu.

So far, one NATO staff member working at the headquarters in Brussels has tested positive for coronavirus. The person had gone on vacation in northern Italy, felt unwell about the end of the week that began March 2, and tested positive, the alliance said in a statement on March 9.

Wednesday’s meeting of senior leadership, in which the pandemic response was a major topic, seems to have been a particular flash point for frustrations from some NATO diplomats who felt as though Stoltenberg was not taking their health concerns seriously.

The feeling of vulnerability is not shared universally within the alliance: Two other senior NATO diplomats said they felt the current precautions were appropriate. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive assessments. Elsewhere, senior national leaders, including Trump, continue to hold relatively large meetings and in-person news conferences.

Official NATO photos from the meeting show senior NATO staff sitting in the room with one chair — about 3 feet of distance — between them. The pictures also showed Stoltenberg and the senior NATO military commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, having their temperatures checked with a forehead thermometer as they entered the headquarters, and Stoltenberg and Wolters grinning and bumping elbows.

Lungescu, the NATO spokeswoman, said that steps were being taken to ensure the health of personnel, including avoiding having Stoltenberg and NATO’s deputy secretary general inside the headquarters at the same time. Such measures were “common sense,” she said. Many NATO staff have been sent to work from home, and are rotating through the headquarters to man skeleton crews, she said.

And “the number of staff in the few meetings that are now taking place has been reduced drastically,” she said.

Elsewhere in Europe, senior military leadership already has been touched by the virus. At least one person with coronavirus attended a March 6 military conference in Wiesbaden, Germany, and after the meeting, a top Polish military commander who was in attendance tested positive for the virus. The commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, also was at the meeting and went into quarantine afterward, where he remains in good health, according to a spokesman.

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