In Brussels, it is a beautiful morning for doing a grim job. Under blue skies, we meet Nathan and Jacques, the crew of one of the city’s Red Cross ambulances.
Normally, their job is all about variety, about a range of different challenges and problems. But now, there is one issue that dominates.
“Coronavirus,” says Nathan, ruefully. “Again and again. All the time.”
They warn us that a call could come at any time. A moment later it does and the ambulance speeds off ahead of us, cutting through the light traffic of a locked-down city.
The patient is a woman in one of the Brussels suburbs who is complaining of a shortage of breath. She is helped into the ambulance and explains that she works at a retirement home where she has not been issued with any protective clothing.
It is a combination of factors that puts her at the very highest risk of catching the virus – across Europe many hundreds of people have died in retirement homes.
While she describes the lack of proper equipment, ambulance workers talk to her from behind masks, and visors.
They now wear full hazmat protective suits to every call-out, appearing at front doors with no skin visible and eyes peering out from behind goggles. The human touch has, at least for the moment, disappeared from their job.
And yet still this is about care at a time when people are bound to feel anxious and scared. What I saw was patience and compassion.
As we reach the nearby hospital, she is carefully moved into a wheelchair and transferred to the hospital.
The ambulance moves off, but not to help a patient.
Instead, after every call, both the vehicle and its crew have to be decontaminated. They drive to one of a handful of sites in the city (run by the fire service) where the ambulance is scrubbed, and the crew remove their protective suits, in order to put on a new one.
It ensures that they don’t pass on the virus. But it’s also disruptive, time-consuming and frustrating. For Nathan and Jacques, it adds to their own gnawing sense of fatigue and anxiety.
“We’re all scared of passing on the virus to our families, and yes, I’m exhausted all the time,” Nathan told me.
“But it’s also really tiring to have to constantly wait for our ambulances to be disinfected when we are trying to keep going. Some of my colleagues with children are really struggling, and they are working non-stop.”
Another patient is attended, and taken to hospital. The ambulance is disinfected again. The pattern never ends – call-out, clean the vehicle. Call-out, clean the vehicle. Every day.
Belgium has been hit hard by coronavirus – a country of 11 million people has already lost more than 1,100 people, and that figure will rise. For the crews of these ambulances, the pressure isn’t going to ease any time soon.