Neutral Switzerland drafts in army to fight coronavirus

By John Miller and Silke Koltrowitz
A sign of Hospital Battalion 2 of the Swiss army is pictured during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Neuchatel

By John Miller and Silke Koltrowitz

ZURICH (Reuters) - In the Swiss Army's biggest call-up since World War II, thousands of soldiers have been sent to support health workers in the fight against the coronavirus, but the mobilisation has not been without problems.

Hundreds of soldiers and officers have been confined to barracks after potential exposure to the infection.

And while around 80-90% of those who got their marching orders on March 16 answered the call of duty, more than 200 could face military justice for failing to report to their units, said army Brigadier Raymond Droz.

In total, some 5,000 soldiers including members of medical battalions are supporting civil personnel.

They have been particularly active in Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton on the border with Italy where many of Switzerland's 22,000 infected and 641 dead are from.

Switzerland is mobilising up to 8,000 members of the military, not only for medical service but to help seal its borders, assist with logistics and provide security support during the crisis.

Currently, 728 military personnel are in quarantine, Droz said, with 49 in isolation. A total of 172 soldiers have tested positive, many of them at a school for recruits in Ticino.

Only one Swiss soldier has tested positive during active coronavirus duty.

Some have raised concerns that the soldiers have had little to do, and have spent their time in hospital waiting rooms rather than actively helping.

Speaking at a news conference in Bern, Droz said the army planned to address that, keeping only those soldiers who are needed for duty and sending others home "for the necessary rest and recuperation".

Meanwhile, around 240 soldiers did not obey their marching orders, which were delivered via text message, Droz said.

"When everything has been cleared up - because in some instances, people have gotten dispensations - these people will be reported to the military justice," he said. "Then, they'll be put through the normal judicial process."

Penalties levied by military judges can include jail time.

One local politician described those who failed to heed the call-up as "traitors".


(Reporting by John Miller, John Revill and Silke Koltrowitz; Editing by Giles Elgood)