The German government has vowed to invest €4 billion to create new jobs at its 400 nationwide public health care centers. DW's Jens Thurau visited one of them.
"The heart of Germany's pandemic fight," to quote Health Minister Jens Spahn, beats behind the sober facade of a multi-story commercial building on a busy street in Berlin's Wilmersdorf-Charlottenburg neighborhood. Security personnel control the entrance. There are long lines and capacity is limited due to coronavirus restrictions.
Nicoletta Wischnewski's office is on the fourth floor. A doctor specialized in hygiene and environmental medicine, Wischnewski runs the health care center. She says she has heard politicians want to elevate her profession in the public's eyes and that the government may invest some €4 billion ($4.76 billion) in public health care centers across the country, as well creating lots of new jobs in them.
Despite the strain of her job, Wischnewski seems like someone who is doing what she loves: "I do it with pleasure," she tells DW. "I see public health as my calling. It's something I've always wanted to do and I'm good at it. Still, I have to admit it's getting more and more difficult to hire new colleagues. Pay is often a key factor." Hospital doctors earn much more than the average public health care worker, not elast because of the shift work they do.
Yet, personnel shortages are nothing new. Germany's 400 public health care centers were short-staffed even before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Ute Teichert, who chairs the trade union representing communal health office doctors' (DVÖGD), tells DW that many of those jobs were cut or left vacant to save money. She says as a result: "We had too few people working in health care even before the pandemic. But when it did come, people suddenly realized: Hey, we don't have enough staff! We have to do something."
That meant doctors like Nicoletta Wischnewski and her colleagues in Berlin, assisted by a hastily assembled team of students and Bundeswehr soldiers, logged countless hours of overtime, operating at their limit and often beyond. They were witness to the drama of human fate, tracked down those with whom a COVID-19-infected patient had been in contact and were repeatedly forced to deal with irate citizens. It's all part of the job.
The primary focus of the roughly 150-member staff here remains contact tracing. People who think they have been infected with coronavirus usually call the center's hotline or send an e-mail, thankfully very few of them show up at the front door.
For months, Bundeswehr soldiers from the German army have been helping out in the call center, where hotline operators catalog patient data. Without their help, the center says it could never have dealt with the crush of calls that came back in April and May, when infections were at their highest.
Once patient data has been recorded, specialists can assist those affected — specialists like health supervisor Fabian Fischbach. He speaks with those infected, traces their social contacts and helps organize things like quarantine. But, when it comes down to it, he is also the person who has to go out and announce official coronavirus measures — which isn't always popular. He drily describes the essence of his job thus: "To enforce the Protection against Infection Act!"
If one believes recent surveys, most Germans are fine with coronavirus safety measures. A good number say they could even imagine stricter measures limiting personal contacts. Still, it takes no more than a few stubborn people to make the lives of others like Florian Fischbach more difficult.
"It's the people who don't want to follow the rules. We entirely understand that we're in an exceptional situation. We know that livelihoods are under threat and that quarantine can have very negative psychological consequences. Still, we think it's important that people let us do our jobs, and listen to trusted media sources," Fischbach tells DW.
After several relatively calm weeks, coronavirus infections are once again on the rise in Germany: "Our enquiries have really gone up again over the past three or four weeks," says Sascha Brauer. He is actually a university lecturer but has been helping the team at the public health care center since the pandemic began. He deals with everything digital and is the glue holding the center's various departments together.
On the side, Brauer even does a bit of PR work: "Right now, we are dealing with a lot of things we had to put on hold, with other illnesses. Fall is around the corner, so flu infections will start to go up. We're already preparing for that." Brauer tells DW it is well documented that coronavirus infections increase when people spend time together in poorly ventilated rooms. He says it is a given that infections will increase come fall.
Asked about her biggest challenges, Nicoletta Wischnewski says: "Right now, most of our capacity is devoted to creating hygiene plans and helping schools. That is because they have seen children return home from vacation with an infection and then bring it to school. At the same time, larger contact pools make contact tracing that much more difficult."
Fabian Fischbach is of the opinion that a lot could be achieved if people would act as most did when they got sick before the coronavirus: "When I feel sick, I go see a doctor then I go home. And I stay there, so that I don't risk infecting others. There is nothing new about that."
When asked, everyone here at the health care center in Berlin's Wilmersdorf-Charlottenburg district — Director Nicoletta Wischnewski, Fabian Fischbach and Sascha Brauer — says better pay and more colleagues would be more than welcome. But most of all, they would just like their team to be recognized for the work it is doing here in "the heart of the fight against the pandemic."