Swiss militia soldiers get historic call up to fight coronavirus

This radical call-up, taken during what is described as an "exceptional" emergency, is the largest military mobilisation in Switzerland since the Second World War. Keystone / Urs Flueeler

“Ding” - you have been mobilised to help Switzerland’s battle against the new coronavirus. This is the text message some Swiss militia personnel have been receiving over the past few days as part of a historic military mobilisation. 

This content was published on March 17, 2020 - 17:29
swissinfo.ch

On March 16, the Swiss government announced that it was mobilising up to 8,000 members of the military to help the cantons fight the rapidly spreading coronavirus, Covid-19.

This radical measure, taken during what is described as an "exceptional" emergency, is the largest military mobilisation in Switzerland since the Second World War. 

“We mustn’t lose any time in fighting the virus,” Defence Minister Viola Amherd told a news conference in Bern on Monday. 

Health, logistics and security

Members of the armed forces who have been called up will offer support in the areas of health, logistics and security. The planned deployment will be applied until the end of June 2020. 

The militia forces will support the health care system with medical services in particular with nursing care, patient monitoring, medical transports or hospital logistics (e.g. bed disinfection, kitchen, laundry and cleaning).

Soldiers will also take over logistical tasks such as transport and assistance in setting up improvised infrastructure. They will also relieve cantonal police forces by helping protect embassies or by supporting the border guards at national borders and airports.

Already some 50 soldiers have been mobilized in canton Ticino, which borders Italy in the south of the country, and some 200 have been called up by other cantons, including Basel Country, Neuchâtel, Thurgau and Graubünden. The aim is that in 3-4 days around 800 people will be available to support cantons that need help.

On March 16, four hospital battalions and five medical companies were also mobilised by text message.

However, on March 17, the CH Media group of newspapers reported that the deployment had suffered an early setback. Two of the medical companies sent to Airolo, canton Ticino, have been quarantined in their barracks with immediate effect. Three personnel have reportedly become infected with the virus. Another 20 people have shown symptoms.

Defence spokesperson Daniel Reist said the two medical companies were conducting "training in quarantine" and could not be deployed but a third company outside the barracks was not affected and can be deployed.

Training

Those soldiers who are completing their training, doing refresher courses and those who are doing longer military service will be mobilised as a priority. In certain areas, additional troops will have to be called up. 

In order to be able to react in good time and adequately to further developments, the government has also authorised the defence ministry to deploy troops that are not part of the militia formations with a high level of readiness, depending on the needs of the civilian authorities. This may mean that certain troops are temporarily mobilised and trained for deployment as a precautionary measure. After a few days' training, they are released from duty and can be called up for deployment at a later date if the cantons request it.

In all, 3,000 of the 8,000 militia personnel will be providing medical support to the cantons. Currently, 10% of them are working as doctors or nurses. They will be passing on essential expertise to the other personnel over three days before returning to their hospitals and other medical facilities, according to Reist.

“The next few weeks are going to be a big challenge,” said Amherd, “but together we can meet it. Civilian critical infrastructure is working. We are committed to keeping it that way.”

Coronavirus in Switzerland

The virus is spreading throughout Switzerland, which is one of the countries most affected by the coronavirus, with over 2,200 people testing positive and 19 deaths. Most victims were elderly people with pre-existing health conditions.   

The pressure on the health system is also growing. In Switzerland there are 82 intensive care units, which have a total of 950-1,000 beds; around 850 of the beds are equipped with respirators. The army has around 200 additional respirators.

On Monday, the government declared an “extraordinary situation”, instituting a nationwide ban on all private and public events and closing bars, restaurants, sports and cultural spaces until April 19; only businesses providing essential goods – such as grocery stores, bakeries and pharmacies – remain open. Schools are closed nationwide until April 19.

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