Several foreign countries have announced that they will not participate in Aurora 20, a major defence exercise which was set to be held in Sweden, its national broadcaster SVT reported.
Canada was the first to announce its pullout, followed by Germany. Austria is considering withdrawing, whereas Britain is withdrawing its frigate but will send an infantry company, thus substantially scaling down its contribution.
The original plan included about 25,000 participants, including 3,000 from twelve invited countries. Aurora 20 was long touted as an even larger reprise of Aurora 17, which was celebrated as Sweden's largest military exercise in decades.
Originally, Aurora 20 was to be held between 11 May and 4 June in southern Sweden, including in the counties of Blekinge and Skåne. However, on Monday, 6 April, the Swedish Armed Forces will decide whether Aurora 20 should be held as planned, rescheduled, or scaled back.
“We are in contact with our international partners and are aware that their contributions may change at short notice depending on how different countries are affected by Covid-19,” communications manager Jonas Svensson told SVT. “The exercise team for Aurora 20 is currently working intensively now on planning for alternative event developments,” Svensson added.
Swedish Armed Forces spokesman Marcus Nilsson said it was “utterly important” for Sweden to arrange the drill in the wake of the new coronavirus pandemic to show that “when the society is in a crisis, the defence must be at its strongest”.
“We plan Aurora 20 to be implemented in full force, but our field hospitals will not be used for they are currently being used to support the National Board of Health,” Nilsson told SVT.
Many national and international military exercises across Europe have been called off in the past weeks amid the spread of coronavirus, most notably Norway's Cold Response.
Plans to proceed with the drill amid the raging coronavirus pandemic have sparked a strong reaction. The International Women's Association for Peace and Freedom called to cancel the drill, claiming that it endangered people's safety through an even greater spread of infection.
“The perception of security must be broadened. You can't throw a grenade at COVID-19, weapons can't protect us”, its Secretary General Elin Liss wrote in an opinion piece in Expressen, advocating for the drill to be scrapped.
Calls to cancel the drill were also published in the local press, including Kristianstadsbladet.
Sweden currently has 5,466 registered COVID-19 cases, and has witnessed 282 fatalities. Compared with the rest of Europe, Sweden has chosen a different approach to tackling the coronavirus epidemic, imposing only voluntary restrictions as opposed to obligatory lockdowns. With only a few restraints in place, such as a limit on gatherings of over 50 people, Sweden largely continues to run as usual, with schools and preschools still open.
Meanwhile, the worldwide number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease that originated in the Chinese province of Hubei has exceeded one million, with about 55,000 fatalities.