From back row to the front line in pandemic fight

Sports | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 23 Mar 2020

Italy flanker Maxime Mbanda has leaped from the back row on the rugby pitch to the front line in the fight against the coronavirus, becoming a volunteer ambulance driver in Parma, and bears witness to a frightening reality on the pandemic.

Last Saturday, Mbanda was scheduled to face England in front of 60,000 people in Rome for his 21st Italian cap, but that match, like so many others, has been postponed.

Instead, wearing a mask and protective suit, he went out again as an ambulance driver with other Yellow Cross volunteers in Emilia-Romagna, one of the areas most affected by the coronavirus.

"When everything was cancelled in rugby, I wondered how I could help, even without medical expertise," said Mbanda, pictured, who plays club rugby for Zebre in Parma. "I found the Yellow Cross, which had a transport service for medicine and food for the elderly."

After one day delivering masks, food and prescriptions, the physical strength of the 27-year-old forward was put to good use where it was most needed. "I found myself transferring positive patients from one local hospital to another," he said. "I help with the stretcher or if there are patients to be carried from a wheelchair."

It is a situation of desperate urgency, where, he said, "95 percent of hospital facilities are dedicated to coronavirus patients".

"If people saw what I see in the hospitals, there wouldn't be a queue in front of the supermarkets anymore," he said. "They would think two, three or four times before leaving home.

"I wish I could say that the situation here has reached its limit. But I'm afraid that's not the case."

Mbanda has no medical experience, but he is working with the support of his girlfriend and his father, a surgeon in Milan.

Mbanda has had to become a psychologist in contact with patients put in wards "where death is the order of the day".

"When you see the look in their eyes... Even if they can't speak, they communicate with the eyes and they tell you things you can't imagine," he said.

"The first person I collected from the hospital told me that he had been there for three hours when the neighbor in the next bed died. And during the night, two other women died in his room. He had never seen anyone die."

You have to treat these patients "as if they were relatives or friends," he said.

"But the terrible thing is that every time you touch them, a simple caress in the ambulance to comfort them, you must immediately disinfect your hands."

Accustomed, as an Italian rugby international, to tackling stronger opponents, Mbanda said he won't give up. "As long as I'm strong, I'll keep going ... As long as there's an emergency, I'm here and I'm staying here."

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