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Opinion: The German call for volunteers to help fight Ebola is embarrassing

If you are in the army you are under orders. But members of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, have now been asked to volunteer to help fight Ebola. It's embarrassing, says DW’s Ludger Schadomsky.

"Von der Leyen calls for Bundeswehr volunteers to fight Ebola" - that was one of the top German news stories in the week beginning Monday, September 22. What was that again? Is the German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, really calling for volunteers to join the fight against a global catastrophe which the UN Security Council has described as a threat to world peace? She is doing so as the defense minister of a country whose reply to calls from partner countries for military support in war and crisis regions is generally not to send in troops but to point to the ‘generous' humanitarian aid it is providing!

Germany has so far made available 17 million euros ($22 million) for the fight against Ebola. But money alone will not defeat the virus. The top priority is having enough qualified medical staff on the ground – and they are lacking in the affected countries. Not least because many local doctors - courageously and without proper protective clothing - were quick to take up the fight only to become infected themselves and die, like Sierra Leone's best virologist.

Why volunteers?

With its world-famous virology centers, Germany is better placed than any other country to help, not only with research and teaching at its centers in Hamburg and Frankfurt but also on the spot in West Africa. A start has been made by providing airlifts, isolation wards, training for local staff. But this only happened after Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had written to Chancellor Merkel requesting aid. This increased public and media pressure on the Geman government.

When one knows these facts, then one can get really angry about the call for volunteers by the defense minister of a country which has for years been trying to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and thereby acquire more influence in world affairs. Why not order Bundeswehr doctors or medical students to go the Ebola-affected countries? What happens if there are no volunteers?

The virus doesn't wait

In the meantime, fresh news stories about Ebola are coming in daily. The three-day lockdown in Sierra Leone uncovered at least 150 additional cases of infection and 70 deaths. In other words, despite all the appeals, families are still hiding their relatives from the virus teams – a surefire recipe for a further wave of infections. Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia cannot afford to wait the four weeks the minister said would be needed for planes to be refurbished so that they could evacuate the German staff from these countries, should this be necessary.

"That is a question which I could eventually answer with 'yes' if I knew that I was protected," was the minister's convoluted answer when asked if she herself would go to one of the crisis countries.

Ludger Schadomsky, head of DW Amharic, standing next to a globe

Ludger Schadomsky is the head of DW's Amharic Service

It is strange that von der Leyen, who worked for several years as a research assistant at a center for epidemiology, should hesitate like this when it comes to making a clear commitment. Wasn't she the one who, in recent months, repeatedly called for a greater German commitment in Africa? Now would be the time!

More causes for embarrassment

The minister's clumsy call for volunteers is not the only cause for embarrassment. There is also the fact that 22 navy helicopters are either out of action or not fully operational. This means that Germany is endangering the success of the anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa in which those helicopters should be taking part. And there's more: The UN recently returned two German Transall planes, saying the oldtimers were not suited for the mission in Mali, it had been decided to lease transport planes from Ghana instead.

All of this leaves the German government and its defense minister, who had been calling so loudly for a more active German role in foreign and security policy, with a lot of egg on their faces.

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