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Romania-Austria night train new lifeline for care workers, elderly

After Vienna's urging, Romania approved the night train between Timisoara and the Austrian capital
After Vienna's urging, Romania approved the night train between Timisoara and the Austrian capital Daniel MIHAILESCU AFP
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Timisoara (Romania) (AFP)

Romanian care worker Cornelia Weisz arrived in Vienna on Monday after waiting more than two months to resume her work in Austria thanks to a special night train started up despite the border closures due to the new coronavirus pandemic.

With a photo of her two children, who remain in Romania, in her bags, the 42-year-old left Timisoara in west Romania Sunday.

Her motivation is "of course the salary, which is five times higher than what I could make in Romania," she told AFP.

Weisz will spend four weeks to care for an elderly diabetic patient in Austria's western province of Tyrol.

Some 65,000 caretakers -- 80 percent of them Romanian and Slovakian women -- normally work in Austria, where some 33,000 people need 24-hour home care. Many of those in need were left struggling when borders suddenly closed in mid-March as countries sought to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

After Vienna's urging, Romania approved the launch of the night train between Timisoara and the Austrian capital, some 500 kilometres (300 miles) apart.

Romania, which has reported more than 15,000 COVID-19 cases and almost 1,000 deaths to date, will only start easing its lockdown from this Friday.

After undergoing a temperature check before embarking, the 100-odd caretakers, almost all women, also have to take a coronavirus screening test once they reach Vienna. They can only meet the people they will work with after a negative result.

After Sunday's debut, five more trains, operated by the Austrian railways OeBB and their Romanian counterparts CFR, are planned until the end of the month.

- Eager to return to work -

In addition to the salaries as a pull factor, some caretakers also have become close to those they help.

"It's as if we are going to meet our family again," said Frusina Samuila, 62, adding during the past two months she had several phone calls with the elderly woman she has been taking care of for three years.

Ion, 56, one of the few men among the group, said he was anxious to meet the sexagenarian, multiple sclerosis sufferer whose pain he tries to ease -- and earn money again.

"They call me Johann there. All the locals know me," the former plumber said proudly, adding he nonetheless would prefer finding a job in Romania.

"I was close to finishing all my savings. How is one able to support himself in this country? And here no one wants to hire someone my age."

But working conditions are tough.

Romanian media have also reported that families in Austria "exploited" several caregivers, who had difficulties leaving after the borders closed.

Besides that, many workers, who normally spent a month in Austria and then one at home before returning again, miss their own families and feel guilty for leaving their own children or elderly parents alone.

"I couldn't work for more than a month in a row," Weisz said.

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