In Europe, national volunteer forces are proving their worth.
Andreas Heinrich knew that the call would be coming; he just didn’t know when. When Germany’s border with Poland closed over one weekend in March, as the government stopped movement because of the coronavirus outbreak, traffic became dangerously backed up along the highways into the east of the country. Trucks and travellers were all caught off guard by the sudden closure. Highway police would soon be overwhelmed. “I expected we would have a deployment and by Tuesday morning it arrived,” says Heinrich, who lives in the eastern city of Bautzen, where he heads a chapter of Germany’s national volunteer force known as Das Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk, or the thw.
Along with nine cars and more than 20 volunteers, Heinrich headed to the border to help out the area’s traffic police. The thw’s job: to manage logistics, keep emergency lanes open for rescue services and evacuate anyone in need: the sick, elderly or pregnant. For two days, Heinrich would drive back and forth along the 70km of congested motorway, where cars and trucks were stuck in traffic jams for as long as 30 hours. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Heinrich. “There were many desperate people.”
There were frustrations – including aggressive and impatient lorry drivers refusing to move out of the way – but also heartwarming moments. Upon stopping a car that was speeding the wrong way down the emergency lane, they realised the father was ill and the daughter was in hysterics. An escort was quickly organised to help the car through the traffic. “There were moving feelings as we got to the border,” says Heinrich, evidently emotional as he recalls the incident. “The daughter cried and said that she would never forget this day. These are the moments when you realise that this is an amazing job.”
“There are many areas where civil defence has a role. It’s not just about defence against attackers but defence against natural disaters”
Heinrich’s is one of countless experiences on the front lines of Europe’s efforts to confront the coronavirus pandemic. And although emergency services have been at the centre of this battle and, in many cases, the military has been called in to help, Heinrich belongs to a group of national volunteer forces set up to aid the emergency services in times of crisis. They have proved to be vital.
These volunteer forces are known by many different names: the Home Guard in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and India; the National Guard in Latvia and the Zivilschutz (civil-defence organisation) in Switzerland. Sometimes they operate as a division or branch of the military; in other cases as their own independent federal agency. In every case they comprise thousands of volunteers who have other full-time jobs but train weekly in military and disaster preparedness, ready to help out when and where they are needed.
Ostensibly their primary mission is to defend their homeland in the event of a foreign invasion. But in the postwar era these volunteers have regularly been called upon to tackle domestic emergencies instead, including such tasks as clearing up after floods, helping police to find missing persons and providing security for large festivals, protests or gatherings.
And when it comes to confronting the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe, volunteer forces have been put to use by helping overstretched emergency services increase capacity. They’ve been operating mostly behind the scenes helping to build field hospitals, tents and virus-testing stations; transport vulnerable patients to safety; provide logistical support; deliver medical equipment; man helplines for the public; and maintain security at airports.
In Switzerland, for example, some 29 different regional branches and hundreds of volunteers were mobilised from the Zivilschutz in the early days of the outbreak. About 90 were helping the university hospital, emergency services and pharmacies in Zürich, while another 200 were supporting care homes for the elderly. Others have been manning a hotline, answering calls from businesses and residents who are wondering what can and can’t be done under the stay-at-home restrictions, and what sort of government support they can receive in the interim.
These groups are not unlike the National Guard in the US – except that the National Guard is a military reserve force that can be called upon only when a state of emergency is declared nationally or in a federal state. Europe’s home guards or civil-defence forces are called on regularly by regional police or emergency services. These home guards are more like volunteer firefighting forces. The advantage is that they are normally one of the few groups that have a national network and are able to mobilise resources quickly across internal state lines.
“The home guard is used almost every week to support missing persons, when there’s flooding or when there are fires in the forest,” says Jesper Tengroth of the home guard in Sweden, where volunteers were enlisted to build up a field hospital for potential virus patients. In Sweden’s case, all emergency requests come through the military first but some of them aren’t necessarily the military’s priority. “Assisting the society is not the main task for the Swedish armed forces,” says Tengroth. So the home guard often finds itself enlisted instead. Sometimes it’s also a simple case of proximity: a vast network of volunteers means that they can often get to the scene fastest. “The home guard is everywhere,” he says.
There is an added benefit in some cases: whereas the military’s presence in domestic society is often more controversial – and typically used to maintain order – civil-defence forces are more likely to be better received by society at large. “It’s a role that would actually be useful all the time,” says Stephen Cullen, a senior research fellow and history expert at the University of Warwick, and author of a book on amateur armies, who bemoans the fact that the UK ended its own postwar national civil-defence force in 1968. “There are many areas where you can imagine civil defence would have a role. It’s not just about defence against attackers but defence against natural disasters.”
There are some drawbacks, however, particularly when such volunteer forces veer into the security sphere. Malaysia and Thailand both have volunteer paramilitaries that were originally formed to fight communists. The People’s Volunteer Corps (Rela) in Malaysia traces its roots to the former home guard and is about three-million strong (some 10 per cent of the country’s population). It has been deployed on the streets of Malaysia to enforce a lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic. But Rela, which is regularly involved in checking for illegal immigration, has also been accused of abusing its powers and acting as a vigilante force by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; the latter has called for Rela to be disbanded.
As in Malaysia, many services that began as home guards were initiated during wartime but transitioned into civil defence after conflicts such as the Second World War ended. Cullen says that there’s a fine line between using such volunteer groups for maintaining order and, more appropriately, for disaster response. “If you had large-scale disorder, the problem with using part-timers is that they are less disciplined,” he says. “They’re less fit and not going to be as well-trained.” Maintaining public order, he says, is best left to the police and the military.
In the case of Germany, the thw’s separation from the military is especially important. As an ostensibly civilian organisation, it doesn’t carry quite the same stigma for some as a military deployment. “In Germany this is, of course, a sensitive topic,” says Michael Kretz, spokesman of the central thw bureau, based in the western city of Bonn. “The thw is very consciously a civic organisation. We were set up differently [than groups in other countries] for historical reasons. But we are those who come to help from everyday society.”
In Germany it also helped that military conscription was in place until 2011. It offered all men a choice at the age of 18: complete six months of either military service or an alternative civilian service, or spread that service out over eight years as a reserve with the thw. Now that conscription has been abolished, the thw has sometimes struggled to keep up its numbers and there’s been some talk of bringing back national service. On the positive side, those volunteers who are present are more dedicated: they want to be there rather than seeing it as an obligation.
It was the reserve option that initially attracted Andreas Heinrich of the Bautzen chapter. Rather than interrupt his university studies for military service, he chose the thw in the early 1990s. And after serving for eight years, the friendships and networks he had built impacted him so much that he decided to stay. “It really dictates much of my life,” says Heinrich, who works as a freelance consultant for several civic organisations. He has been involved in hundreds of domestic rescue operations and more than 30 foreign-aid operations (yes, the thw helps in external emergencies as well). “I’ve sort of managed to turn my hobby into my life.”
And yet confronting the invisible enemy that is coronavirus is unlike any challenge that Heinrich has faced before. A flood response is predictable, an epidemic is not: one day Heinrich could be “twiddling my thumbs” waiting for a call; another day his organisation could be overwhelmed and simply unable to provide enough help. “The situation is very unclear,” he says. “And that’s what makes it unique.”
Images: Getty Images, Swiss Civil Defence, Sergio Lopez