NEUCHATEL, Switzerland (Reuters) - In a Swiss hospital, the tall young soldier adjusts the heavy hospital bed in which an elderly woman with coronavirus is coughing deeply and wheels her out of the emergency ward.
Head nurse Christophe Galzin is delighted to be getting the extra help. “They (the soldiers) are very strong,” he said.
The Swiss army, which has not been mobilized since World War Two and then only in defensive mode, has been deployed to help healthcare workers on the frontline of Switzerland’s war against coronavirus.
Switzerland now has nearly 10,000 confirmed cases and over 100 deaths. It shares a border with Italy, the country worst affected worldwide by the virus, and with France, also badly hit.
Despite its wealth, top-notch healthcare system and a factory to make ventilators, a top official has warned that Swiss hospitals could soon collapse. One near the Italian border in Ticino canton is already under great strain.
The team at Neuchatel Hospital, in a French-speaking canton, has worked long shifts to cope with the influx of coronavirus cases and eight in Galzin’s team have already caught it.
Since Monday, 90 men and women drawn from Switzerland’s 2,400 “blue berets”, or hospital soldiers, have been helping out, moving beds, cleaning and performing other tasks.
“The Neuchatel hospitals had the good sense to make us come earlier, before the peak...,” said Priscilla Schober, a soldier in Galzin’s team. “When the peak does come, we will really be at our best and able to act.”
The hospital now has 24 coronavirus patients but triage tents - still empty - have been erected in the car park and spare beds prepared for a bigger influx.
Outside, a banner reads: “Healthcare workers, we are with you in these moments...”, reflecting a wave of public support for them.
Galzin described the soldiers’ help as a “huge relief”.
“It... allows us to relieve our teams so we can involve them a little bit later when it (the pandemic) increases in intensity,” he said.
Switzerland is one of few Western countries that still has mandatory military service for men, meaning it has a large pool of potential recruits to draw from.
Around 8,000 have been mobilized until late June, many taken out of their civilian life as students, lawyers and bankers - via a text message last week - to build tents, drive ambulances and move supplies. A further 1,000 have volunteered.
“They are not professionals and that’s what makes it remarkable,” said Commander Yvon Langel in the hospital lobby.
The army, which has stayed out of wars for centuries, is famous for its extensive preparations, building anti-tank defenses during World War Two and nuclear bunkers in the mountains during the Cold War.
Its four hospital battalions have done modules that cover disasters such as earthquakes and epidemics and did a crash-course in coronavirus last weekend.
Still, the troops said it was difficult to feel ready.
Ludovic Besson, a young sergeant who in civilian life is a carpenter, said the hardest part was the long separation from his family.
“I will explain to my daughter later, when she is older, that if her dad was not there when she was six months old, this is because he had a more important mission with the army and for the country.”
Writing by Emma Farge; editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Gareth Jones