photo: a TGV train in Avignon, France
One of France's high-speed TGV trains has been repurposed to transport Covid-19 patients. Estelle Ruiz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

To move Covid-19 patients from the hardest-hit areas, authorities in France turned one of the nation’s famous TGV trains into a very fast ambulance.

France’s latest weapon in the fight against Covid-19 is a high-speed train. This week, the French government adapted a five-car TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) to serve as a mobile hospital. It’s intended to shuttle patients from the hardest hit region to hospitals with more capacity, easing the stress on resources. Equipped with ventilators and medical staff, the train started service Thursday, transporting 20 patients from the cities of Strasbourg and Mulhouse in the country’s northeastern Grand Est (“Greater East”) region to hospitals in the currently less-affected Loire Region.

There are good reasons for taking the fight against Covid-19 onto the rails. France, like several other European nations, has instituted a lockdown that bars all non-essential travel between cities. Turning the TGV into a giant, high-speed ambulance gives healthcare workers a more spacious — and thus safer — environment to work. The train can reach its destination faster and more smoothly than a road vehicle, and carry more people than a helicopter.

France needs the hospital train because its distribution of Covid-19 cases is very uneven. With more than 5,000 confirmed cases among its population of 5.5 million, the Grand Est has the highest incidence of Covid-19 per capita of any French region, surpassing even Paris. Its hospitals have already been running at crisis level for some time, and are reaching the point where doctors are being forced to make painful decisions about who they can and can’t treat. Moving patients to less-affected regions will be a life-saving re-balancing act.

Thankfully, that has already been happening, thanks in part to the region’s European Union neighbors. Hospitals in Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg, which all border the region and have a lower number of reported cases, have been accepting critical patients. As celebrated by the region’s Premier Jean Rottner in the tweet above, an international effort can reduce the pressure on the Grand Est’s normally high-functioning but heavily oversubscribed local health system.

There’s some small comfort to be gained from this show of solidarity between members of the virus-strained EU, and from the willingness of France to deploy its world-famous TGV system to spread the weight of cases and save lives. The pandemic may have closed borders and restricted millions to the immediate area around their homes, but even in a period where many of us are experiencing a uniquely local orbit, international and regional cooperation lives on.

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