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Germany’s Military an Unexpected Star in Pandemic Relief

The Bundeswehr’s ubiquity and effectiveness in various facets of the COVID response has created an unusual problem.

You may have heard that Germany has opened its first 24/7 COVID vaccination clinic. You may, however, not have heard that it was the Bundeswehr that set it up and operates it. 

The German military is – sadly and certainly unfairly – one of the world’s most ridiculed organizations. But during the pandemic it has put in an equally formidable and surprising star turn, transporting critically ill patients from other countries to German hospitals, conducting COVID tests across Germany, and now pioneering round-the-clock vaccination. But Germans shouldn’t get used to this Red Cross-like role.

While the United States and the UK are speeding ahead with vaccinations, the European Union’s member states are struggling. Germany, in particular, seems a shadow of its usual well-organized self. It was therefore rare good news when, on Easter Day, the country’s first always-open vaccination center began operating in the state of Saarland. The Bundeswehr set up the clinic, and 108 of its soldiers are now dispensing vaccine jabs there around the clock. 

The Bundeswehr has, in fact, had an extraordinarily busy epidemic. As I wrote almost exactly one year ago, when COVID hit Europe, the German armed forces quickly offered its services should critically ill patients in other countries need to be airlifted to Germany. When that turned out to be the case, it transported Italian and French patients to civilian hospitals in Germany and treated some of the patients at its own hospitals. It brought German doctors and equipment to countries ranging from Armenia to the UK (which received 60 ventilators from the Bundeswehr). Since then, it has delivered medical equipment to countries including Kosovo, Jordan, Ukraine, Brazil (which received 80 ventilators, again as a gift), and Slovakia. Bundeswehr doctors have also travelled along to serve in some of the destination countries including Portugal.

But the real effect has been in Germany itself. Because the German military can only assist civilian authorities if asked to do so, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer met the news of the pandemic by announcing that the Bundeswehr was ready to assist – and then waiting for requests. They arrived fast and furiously: 6,273 and counting, from states and municipalities, for help with testing, administrative help in local health departments, vaccination, help in care homes and hospitals, and help setting up infrastructure. 

At the moment, 25,000 soldiers are deployed in this Red Cross-like effort. Around 3,000 are administering vaccinations, while 2,000 are conducting tests in care homes, and more than 4,500 are assisting administrative health departments. There are Bundeswehr soldiers on COVID duty in every single state. Following requests from further states, Bundeswehr is planning to set up two more 24/7 vaccination sites. 

To be sure, in other countries the armed forces have been part of the pandemic response too. In the UK, for example, soldiers have conducted COVID tests, transported oxygen to hospitals, and built temporary hospitals. But nowhere has the military’s pandemic mission been as all-encompassing as in Germany. Thousands of soldiers deployed in health departments, where they help track infections and register vaccinations: it stands to reason that without the Bundeswehr’s assistance – provided free of charge – Germany’s fight against the vicious SARS-CoV-2 would struggle. (And remember, Germany’s current delays in vaccinating the population are the result of slow orders and conflicting decisions about which vaccines should be used.)

As a result, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Germans now think very highly of their armed forces. An annual survey conducted each summer found that in 2020 82 percent of Germans had a positive view of the Bundeswehr, up by six percentage points from the 2019. Remarkably, most Germans professed to knowing little about the Bundeswehr’s foreign deployments. 25 percent, for example, said they were unaware that the Bundeswehr is in Afghanistan (where it has 1,300 troops, more than any other country bar the United States), while only 29 percent said they know knew a bit or a great deal about the mission. 41 percent are not even aware that Bundeswehr soldiers are in Mali (where they train Malian soldiers), the survey revealed.

No doubt about it: armed forces are a fantastic resource in civilian contingencies. No European country (or the United States, where Gen. Gustave Perna was quickly tapped to lead the vaccination rollout) could have tackled the furious fight against COVID without at least some help from its armed forces. But the Bundeswehr has been so good at this Red Cross role that Germans risk getting used to it. For a country that is deeply (and given its history, understandably) wary of seeing its soldiers use force abroad, it is comforting to instead see them deploy in large numbers to fight a pandemic at home.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, who leads her ministry with a level of dedication and innovativeness rarely seen in her predecessors, deserves credit for her troops’ star turn. And even as the pandemic has been raging, she has unveiled initiatives such as Your Year for Germany, where young people are invited to spend one year training and practicing homeland defense, primarily in their home regions. (The first cohort began their training this month.) Her paradoxical challenge now is to make sure Germans don’t get so comfortable with the Bundeswehr’s star pandemic-helper turn that they forget the military’s real purpose.