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A member of the German armed forces holds a face mask in Gera, Germany. Photo: AP

Coronavirus: German military asked to secure transport of face masks after US initially accused of ‘piracy’

  • Request for troop support came after a delivery of 200,000 face masks destined for the German capital was diverted en route from China
  • German officials initially laid blame on US, one calling diversion of shipment ‘an act of modern piracy’

The Berlin city government has asked the German military for assistance in securing the transport of surgical masks and other protective medical clothing after conflicting reports about the mysterious disappearance of 200,000 face masks Berlin had bought for its police department.

A spokesman for the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces, confirmed a request for the military help had been made and was being studied after Dilek Kalayci, the city’s minister for health, said on Sunday the city urgently needed its assistance in airlifting medical supplies to Germany’s largest city for the battle against the coronavirus crisis.

Another senior Berlin city government official, Interior Minister Andreas Geisel, had criticised the United States on Friday, saying that 200,000 FFP2 masks made by American firm 3M in China had been “confiscated” at Bangkok’s airport with “wild west methods”.

He said the diversion was “an act of modern piracy. This is no way to treat transatlantic partners”.

The comments were later retracted and city officials said they were investigating the disappearance of the face masks.

Similar criticism came from France where officials have accused unidentified Americans of paying higher prices to secure masks in China that had already been headed to France.


The US embassy in Paris was quoted saying any suggestion that the US government was involved in such practices was “completely false”.

Coronavirus: Germany, France accuse Americans of mask ‘piracy’, dirty tricks

“We’ve made an official request to the Bundeswehr for assistance,” Kalayci, the Berlin health minister, told the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper amid the uncertainty about the fate of the missing face masks. “I’ve made an urgent appeal to the defence minister for the Bundeswehr to take over the transport and fly the protective medical materials to Berlin.”

During the coronavirus crisis, the Bundeswehr has been on occasion involved in helping transport medical supplies across Germany in an emergency situation but has not yet been involved in any overseas transport mission. In general, the Bundeswehr transport mission flights do not carry any weapons.

An underground supply and repair centre for the German armed forces. Photo: AFP

German officials also point that the German military was reluctant to get involved in transporting materials on routes where commercial airlines were available because it does not want to compete with private carriers.

“Civilian and commercial options should be used first,” a Bundeswehr spokesman told the South China Morning Post. “The Bundeswehr will hold back as long as possible and only act when the civilian and commercial options are exhausted.”

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The scramble for medical-grade face masks has escalated in recent days as the numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases and fatalities continued to rise. In Germany more than 95,000 people are now infected, and 1,447 have died. Worldwide, more than 1.2 million had been infected and almost 69,000 have died.


Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller, who had also criticised the United States as “irresponsible” on Friday, later announced that two million face masks and 300,000 medical gowns made in China had made it safely to Berlin on Sunday.

“Good news,” Mueller wrote on Twitter (@RegBerlin). “In the meantime, more than two million face masks and 300,000 protective gowns have arrived in Berlin.”


The leader of the main opposition party in the Berlin state assembly, Burkhard Dregger of the conservative Christian Democrats, accused Mueller of “deliberately misleading” the public with “disinformation” about the fate of the missing masks.

“The government is looking for a scapegoat and trying to conceal its own incompetence for failing to secure enough protective gear,” said Dregger.


The public’s growing eagerness to wear face masks has increased sharply in recent days, especially after Germany’s Robert Koch Institute disease control agency changed its recommendations on cloth face masks, urging Germans to wear them in public.

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“The face masks could help to protect others but they don’t help protect the wearer themselves,” said Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute, at a news conference late last week. “That’s important to understand.”

The about-face came after Austria and the east German city of Jena said that face masks would be required for anyone going into shops or public areas from Monday. Previously, the Koch institute had only recommended that people with respiratory infections should wear the masks to protect others.

More German scientists and experts are now pointing out that wearing even non-medical grade masks in public can protect others, which is contributed to a major shift in public opinion and the more widespread use of masks that had long been common in Asia.

An opinion poll by the Forsa polling institute for RTL television recently found that 57 per cent of 1,004 Germans surveyed are in favour of requiring Germans to wear face masks in public while 35 per cent were opposed.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Military urged to help fly in surgical masks after US allegedly seizes supplies