They don’t have to put themselves in harm’s way, but the volunteers of France’s well-known Civil Protection service have chosen the front line in the fight against the coronavirus. They are often the first to knock on the doors of people calling for help, and who may have the infection or whose confirmed case has taken a downturn.
The volunteers, all trained, equip themselves for the crisis with protective gowns, head gear, masks and gloves when they head out on a mission, not knowing what they will encounter when the door opens. Teams have been downsized from four to two or a maximum of three volunteers to limit the potential spread of infection.
“We’re facing a very contagious virus … so we have to learn fast,” says Aurore Lejeune, 41, who builds bridges for the SNCF rail authority in her other life. Now working from home, she goes on help missions in the Paris region on the evenings or weekends.
“What is striking is that all our interventions concern coronavirus,” she said, either respiratory distress or other signs of COVID-19. “This is how we see the size of the coronovirus (spread) in Paris. It’s ramping up.”
The Paris teams start their missions at Necker Children’s Hospital, where they gear up. They return there to get rid of their garb and disinfect their vehicles after each intervention.
The Civil Protection service is a mainstay among France’s first responder sector, with 32,000 volunteers based in 400 locations around the country.
What prompts Vincent Jactel, a 36-year-old chemistry researcher, to volunteer since 2011, to continue despite the risks presented by a new virus?
“I have time, energy. I don’t want to waste it,” he said. “It will be satisfying later to tell myself … that I was in action. I did my bit to fight this very real crisis.”
Lejeune is in her 14th year volunteering for Civil Protection, but she says she hasn’t encountered such high-risk situations in the past. Her partner is a doctor so he, too, is in contact with COVID-19.
“It’s very difficult. Our families … are afraid for us,” she said. “It’s an added pressure.” Nevertheless, “we’re aware that the public and public services depend on us.”
Teams examine the patient, providing oxygen when needed, then advise the doctor on call who decides if hospitalization is needed.
“Once we leave them at the hospital, our mission is over,” Lejeune said. Volunteers won’t know the fate of the person they were mobilized to help, at risk to themselves.
“We know the evolution of the illness and know the next stage will be difficult,” she said. “Sometimes it’s better not to know.”