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Coronavirus: The German army's homefront

February 12, 2021

Tens housands of German soldiers have been deployed to help battle the pandemic in care homes and vaccination centers, marking in the largest domestic deployment in modern German history.

Two German army soldiers in combat fatigues and putting on medical protective gear
Bundeswehr officer Sabine Wittwer and a colleague don preventive gear while on domestic deploymentImage: Privat

"The reactions are always positive. People are surprised to see us here." Sabine Wittwer is a sergeant in the Bundeswehr, Germany's army. But just a few days ago, she received orders to leave the barracks where she is ordinarily based and report for duty in a retirement home in Berlin. So now, she wears a blue protection suit and gloves over her olive-green uniform.

In ordinary times, Wittwer has what is essentially a desk job, responsible for procurement duties. That was, until the coronavirus pandemic prompted her to volunteer to help out in a care home. She admits that she did have some initial nerves, doubting whether she had made the right choice to suggest taking on a whole other set of duties. But her doubts, she says, are a thing of the past.

Shortly before Christmas local press showed photos of the many ambulances and other emergency vehicles lined up in front of one a local home for the elderly. The coronavirus had begun to spread inside the building, triggering a standard procedure: the daily care program for the residents continued, but the complex was completely shut off from the outside world.

'It was certainly worth it'

It was during that first wave of COVID-19 that the Bundeswehr personnel were called in. And straight away, it became easier to allow visitors to enter the home, each one of whom had to undergo a rapid test. "Previously, that job was done by regular care staff, who were already stretched beyond their capacities," says 36-year-old Wittwer. Each day, the soldiers carry out as many as 40 tests, some of which are on the care personnel. A small number of visitors have indeed tested positive, showing how asymptomatic people can indeed carry the virus. "If just one in 100 guests is infected, then it has been worth it," she says. Especially given how important it is to preserve high-risk residents' contact with the outside world while also protecting them from the virus.

It was a year ago, only shortly after the outbreak of the coronavirus in Germany, that the military inititally began support operations. And when the situation deteriorated still further amid the even more widespread second wave, the number of soldiers volunteering to go on front-line service actually increased. At the end of October, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer underlined the reasoning behind the deployment: "The Bundeswehr is tasked with combatting domestic crises with commitment and without fear. Therefore, in the emergency currently facing our society, it is a model for others."

Germany military personnel deploying to Portugal to assist in fighting the pandemic
In addition to its domestic deployment, Germany's armed forces have also sent personnel and supplies to help other countries fight the pandemicImage: Moritz Frankenberg/dpa/picture alliance

Some 12,000 Bundeswehr personnel are currently deployed in this unusual mission, including just under 1,400 in Berlin alone. They are supporting local health offices in track-and-trace efforts to identify and break chains of infection, administering vaccinations in vaccination centers, carrying out rapid tests, and supporting staff in homes for the elderly and other care facilities. In all these areas, the women and men from the Bundeswehr have met with a universally warm response.

Taking the pressure off carers

Also among their ranks: Sergeant Major Niklas Türschmann. The 25-year-old is normally stationed at an air base 90 kilometers (56 miles) south of Berlin. For the time being, though, he is working on the visitor phone line at a home for the elderly in the capital's Prenzlauer Berg district, taking down and collating information on potential visitors to the home, mainly callers who want to visit residents but struggle with the online registration process.

Türschmann describes an "overwhelmingly positive" response to the military. "Otherside, they would have to use one of their own carers, who would then not be available to work directly with patients: "We're helping to relieve some of the pressure." The situation is, however, "alarming." There had beencare staff shortages before coronavirus, he explains, "and things aren't going to be any better after corona."

The sergeant major has also witnessed a number of corona cases among his own circle of friends. Which, in part at least, explains why he is so eager to make a contribution. When he is not on telephone duty, like this colleague he goes round the building disinfecting door handles and bannisters.

Germany: Carers from overseas

Operational readiness compromised?

The defense minister recently boosted the Bundeswehr's pandemic defense contingent to 25,000 soldiers. It is set to be the largest domestic deployment in the history of today's German military.

The Bundeswehr is clearly making a huge contribution. But some senior commanders are not happy. Among them: Lieutenant General Martin Schelleis, who says his force's operational readiness is compromised and wants to see the Bundeswehr soldiers back in their barracks as soon as possible. Of course, he agrees, it is part of the Bundeswehr's job to help out  quickly and flexibly  in an emergency. But in his view, "assistance of this kind should be limited," noting that exercises and training courses have been cut back for the army, navy and air forces alike.

COVID: Help for Portugal

Appreciation boosts support for military

Corporal David Koschollek, ordinarily stationed in the central state of Lower Saxony, is currently helping out in a "care for everybody" program at a retirement home in the Berlin district of Steglitz. He helps to serve meals, accompanies residents on their daily walks, plays board games or cards with them. "The carers are very nice and very grateful. And the same goes for the residents. Super nice," says the 39-year-old.  But the residents hardly get any visitors and many of them struggle with loneliness. No wonder, then, that Koschollek and his comrades are so welcome: their presence is a "very big deal" for the residents.

And he says, it really boosts the extent to which people are likely to appreciate their fellow citizens in uniform: "The standing of the Bundeswehr is not that great. And it's good to see that changing." Koschollek explains how, until quite recently, soldiers used to be "given a hard time" when they wore their uniforms in public. Given Germany's history in the world wars and its propagation of the Holocaust, the German public has a complex relationship with its military.

Sniffer dog "Vine" and a soldier of the German military
The Bundeswehr has also developed a school to train service dogs to sniff out the coronavirusImage: Reuters/W. Rattay

Why is it that members of the German armed forces are so grateful for just a little bit of praise? "People are happy enough to do you down" for serving in the military, he says, something he has found astonishing during his 10 years in uniform. Two deployments outside Germany. And last year he joined 50 comrades in a special operation to combat a damaging bark beetle outbreak in woodlands in the eastern state of Saxony. The other two soldiers will also be on further tough assignments in the weeks and months to come. Sabine Wittwer and her unit, for instance, are already set to serve in Jordan.

Pandemic exacerbating existing problems

The coronavirus pandemic, says Koschollek, "is putting the country to the test." It is a sentiment shared by his Bundeswehr colleagues Wittwer and Türschmann. Germany is facing some major challenges, including finally tackling the chronic understaffing in the country's care homes. The lack of qualified care staff is an ongoing problem that has only worsened as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and its knock-on effects. Given the country's aging population, it is an issue that will not soon go away.

This article was translated from German.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C