At 1:30am on Tuesday 24 March, an Italian air force plane landed at Leipzig airport in eastern Germany. Onboard were two men in their fifites from Bergamo in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, which has suffered the deadliest form of coronavirus in the world. Both unconscious and breathing through ventilators, they were quickly transferred to Leipzig’s University Hospital.
Over the past week Germany has begun transferring around 50 Italian patients in critical condition to hospitals all over the country. It has also taken in 63 patients from Alsace, one of the worst-hit regions in France. The country has some of the highest numbers of intensive care beds in Europe – according to 2011 data, Germany had 29.2 critical care beds per 100,000 people while Italy had 12.5.
As Germany has so far escaped the levels of infection seen in some countries – there have been 993 deaths compared to Italy’s 12,428 – its healthcare system still has plenty of capacity.
“We’ve been preparing for the pandemic now for a number of weeks and we currently have 45 intensive care beds free,” Professor Sebastian Stehr, chair of the critical care department, tells The Independent. “The situation in this region is still quite tranquil.”
The patients were selected by doctors in Bergamo and were judged to be in critical condition, yet still well enough to be transported. Prof Stehr admits that some on the original list of possible transfers may have died before the journey could start. All are unconscious and therefore unaware they have left the country.
“We have a physician here who worked in Italy for many years and is fluent, and she is speaking to their families daily,” says Prof Stehr. “It will take several days to weeks of treatment to see if they survive. At the moment I expect them to be in our intensive care unit for at least another 14 days.”
After Prof Stehr spoke to The Independent, he confirmed one of the patients had died from complications relating to Covid-19.
As the border between France and Italy is closed, patients are being transported by each country’s air force. The Italian plane only had space for two ventilated patients, but Germany has now provided an airbus that can transport six a day.
They are the first critically ill Covid-19 patients most doctors in Leipzig have treated, but the hospitals are confident they will not contribute to spread of the disease.
“We have strict rules and regulations in regard to hygiene,” says Professor Gerhard Hindricks, medical director of Leipzig Heart Centre which has also taken in two Italian patients. “As long as everyone sticks to them meticulously, contamination is very unlikely.”
In the west of the country, patients from eastern France have been transported by train to neighbouring border regions after the head of the Haut-Rhin administrative district Brigitte Klinkert requested help from contacts in Switzerland and Germany’s Baden-Württemberg district. “I was very touched to receive positive responses with a few hours,” she says.
“This shows that friendship and solidarity knows no borders. [The Rhine basin is] a real cross-border territory, in good times but also in times of crisis. There was a lot of emotion in the phone calls I had with German and Swiss politicians and doctors.”
Klinkert says she has already heard from one family whose father was transferred to Germany and is now out of intensive care. The neighbouring regions are planning to cooperate further, with a professor from the University Clinic of Freiburg offering to visit hospitals to exchange best practices. Politicians in this particular region know each other well and are used to cooperating, which has made the process run smoothly.
Professor Hindricks also adds that there are already “multiple communication channels” between doctors in Italy, France, Germany and the UK exchanging best practices and advising each other on the purchase of equipment.
In Germany, the scheme to take in Italian patients was headed by Marian Wendt, a politician with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. “It’s a matter of humanity but also solidarity within the EU,” he says. “I come from Torgau, where the allied forces linked up in 1945. We have had two major floods and received aid from other European countries.”
Wendt, who was previously working on delivering supplies of facemasks to Italy, believes the EU needs a united response to China’s massive PR efforts.
Beijing has sent masks, ventilators and teams of doctors around the world – some of which has proved faulty – and won praise from Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio. “It was a real propaganda show,” said Wendt. “That was one reason why I said, ‘We have to do more’.”
Healthcare is decided by individual nation states rather than at EU level, but this has not stopped criticism of European countries’ responses to Italy’s crisis. Earlier in the outbreak Italy’s ambassador the to EU, Maurizio Massari, expressed frustration over countries’ failure to heed a European Commission call to send equipment and supplies.
“We need better coordination [on healthcare between states],” admits Wendt. “But it would mean giving sovereignty to Brussels.”
But with divides between northern and southern Europe growing over what best policy to take as a union, particularly on the issue of EU “coronabonds” – the impact of this display of cross-border solidarity remains to be seen.
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