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COVID-19: What you can do to help

Helena Kaschel
March 13, 2020

In the fight against coronavirus, every day counts — and everyone is being called on to do their part. DW takes a look at what Germans are doing to slow the spread of the virus and protect at-risk groups.

Figures depicting the coronavirus vs "carneval virus" are pictured during the "Rosenmontag" (Rose Monday) parade in Duesseldorf
Image: Reuters/T. Schmuelgen

"We have to change our everyday lives — not gradually, but right now," German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Thursday in an appeal to the people of Germany.

Solidarity "is the task of the hour," he urged, following a meeting with Heath Minister Jens Spahn and the president of the Robert Koch Institute, Lothar Wieler. Those who are most at risk from  COVID-19 (Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2) — the elderly and people who are chronically ill or have pre-existing conditions — need support from the community.

Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized a similar message on Wednesday, saying: "Our solidarity, our common sense and our care for one another are being put to the test — which I hope will pass."

Read more: Merkel calls for social distancing as deaths mount

According to experts, Germany has a few weeks to slow down the spread of the new coronavirus, also dubbed SARS-CoV-2, and to prevent the country's health system from becoming overloaded.

Germany also needs to buy time for research into vaccines and treatments for the virus. Current data indicates that one in five people who are infected will become seriously ill. If the situation is not taken seriously, experts believe the mortality rate for elderly people will be around 20 to 25%, Christian Drosten, the leading virologist at Berlin's Charité hospital, told public broadcaster NDR.

Decisions made by local authorities and companies can contribute to slow the spread. DW takes a look at what private individuals in Germany can do — and are doing — to help out.

Read more: Coronavirus begins shutting down public life across Germany

Staying at home during your time off

The decision whether to attend a conference, go to a concert, watch a soccer match in a stadium or go to work in the office is no longer an entirely personal choice for people living in Germany right now.

Whether they visit friends in a neighboring state, go to their neighbor's housewarming party or sit at the bar instead of on the sofa is — currently — still up to them.

But already last Monday, Health Minister Spahn appealed to the public's sense of personal responsibility. "It is surely easier to give up concerts and soccer games than giving up going to work," he said at a press conference in Berlin.

The Health Ministry also warns on its website: "Whenever possible, travel and public transportation should be avoided and work should be done from home. In general, any [physical or social] contact should be reduced."

Drosten also urged people to act responsibly in their private lives. For example, he advised parents to change up their usual routine of what happens when their child gets sick.

Instead of having the grandparents step in to help with childcare, parents should rather think about protecting older family members, Drosten said. Taking over certain tasks for elderly family members like grocery shopping would be helpful, "so that they don't have to go to the supermarket all the time."

Actively helping those at risk

If there's a positive side effect to the outbreak, it's that people are reaching out to neighbors and stepping up to help.

Using the hashtag #Nachbarschaftschallenge (neighborhood challenge), social media users in Germany are calling on people to help shop or do other tasks for people nearby who are elderly or have compromised immune systems.

A group of schoolchildren in neighboring Austria launched an initiative on Instagram and Twitter in which they offer to go grocery shopping for people in their area who are at risk. In Germany, people have formed Facebook groups to coordinate similar efforts in their neighborhoods.

The website "Gegen den Virus" (Against the Virus) offers a free poster in several languages that people can download and hang up in their apartment buildings where neighbors can let each other know who is available to help.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas praised the campaigns, writing on Twitter: "I want to thank all those who are there for their fellow human beings and who are indirectly saving lives."

German journalist Dunja Hayali also wrote on Twitter that "now is the time to help, and to show solidarity." For example, everyone "could simply ask their neighbor if they need help." Thomas Meyer, the Brussels correspondent for Austrian newspaper Der Standard tweeted: "Today I already called three friends who are shopping for their elderly neighbors so that they can stay home. That's how it works!"

A slightly different offer of help came from the Swiss-American comedian Hazel Brugger and TV presenter Aline von Drateln. They offered to help take over child care for parents in their district who need to go to work, they wrote on Twitter.

A food bank in Bremen, Germany
Many of Germany's neediest people may soon have difficulty finding enough food, as food banks close or are unable to meet customers' needs due to fewer donationsImage: DW/Shamsan Anders

Donate food

Panic buying due to coronavirus doesn't just cause bottlenecks in supermarkets. Germany's food banks regularly provide some 1.6 million needy people with food — but many such organizations have received significantly fewer food donations recently, Jochen Brühl, head of Germany's national food bank association, told the Osnabrücker Zeitung newspaper earlier this week. Brühl has since told the dpa press agency that the situation is normalizing again in some places. Nevertheless, he appealed to the population to think of those with fewer financial resources. "Anyone who realizes they have bought too much food is welcome to contact the food banks and donate it." 

Germany's Green party has also called for people to donate to food banks. "Impoverished people in particular are now relying on solidarity," the party’s parliamentary leaders, Katrin Göring-Eckardt and Anton Hofreiter said in a statement.

But another significant problem is threatening food banks' ability to help: Some 90% of food bank volunteers in Germany are older and therefore in a higher risk group for coronavirus, says the German food bank association Tafel Deutschland e.V. The association has called for a "wave of solidarity" to assist banks that "need support to set up or expand delivery services, pack food in bags or packages, and hand it out."

Food sharing groups have also asked for donations, with one group in Bremen calling on people whose events were cancelled due to the virus to donate their excess food. The appeal has since been shared on Twitter more than 14,000 times.

Donate blood

Several blood donation services of the German Red Cross (DRK) have appealed to citizens to donate blood "even in times of the flu, rampant colds and the coronavirus." Many donors are now canceling previously booked appointments in donation venues, according to the German Red Cross Western Blood Donation service, which supplies hospitals and medical practices in three of Germany's western states.

"Under certain circumstances, this can mean that we can no longer fulfill our care mandate, because a publicly accessible donation center is the first cornerstone in a sensitive chain of care for patients with blood in therapy and emergency care," local DRK branches said on their websites.

The current recommendations to stay at home and not attend any gatherings cannot be applied to mobile blood donation appointments, however. "Here, significantly fewer people come together, and they are generally those who are healthy," said the service. Those who feel sick should simply not donate blood. "In addition, the blood donation appointments are always carried out under medical supervision and taking into account the highest hygiene and safety standards. For example, all those willing to donate will have their temperature taken immediately before having a consultation with the doctor."

Read more: Are German hospitals unprepared for coronavirus outbreak?

The university clinics in the western cities of Bonn and Essen also recorded a significant drop in blood donations. Compared to the previous year, 30% fewer donors came to the blood donation service after the recent Carnival period, according to a statement by the University Hospital Bonn. Radio Essen is currently reporting 20% fewer donors.

It can be assumed that "the situation in the other states will develop in the same way and that we will be confronted with a problem that lasts longer," Dr. Jochen Hoch, senior physician at the Bonn University Institute for Experimental Hematology and Transfusion Medicine, has said. Currently, returning travelers from China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and parts of France, as well as people who have had contact with infected persons and suspected cases, are being told not to donate blood for at least the next four weeks. But those who wish to help should remember that donating blood even in the time of coronavirus is harmless,  and the safety of both donors and recipients is of top priority to medical personnel.

Whether via donations, social media campaigns or taking measures to change one's own habits, the coming weeks and months will show how much solidarity German society is ready to show as the coronavirus crisis takes hold.