A Letter From Italy's Coronavirus Epicenter: 'Coffins Pile Up in Churches, People in Their 80s Die Alone'

Sirens blaring, bells tolling for the dead, neighbors singing on balconies: This is our sad soundtrack. A letter from Bergamo, Italy

Gideon Levy
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A view of Bergamo, Italy, March 17, 2020.
A view of Bergamo, Italy, March 17, 2020. Credit: Luca Bruno,AP
Gideon Levy

“I thought it would interest you to read my letter, since you loved my city so much,” Rosita Poloni wrote me earlier this week. She’s a social worker and a peace activist from the city in Italy that’s been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus epidemic.

Bergamo is a city of about 120,000, planted on a Lombardy hilltop between Verona and Milan, with a splendid old city surrounded by a 16th-century Venetian wall. There’s a dance named after Bergamo, the food in the restaurants is superb (of course) and the city’s beauty is pervasive.

Polini lived in Israel for about two years during the second intifada. She is a frequent visitor here and in the territories and has been active in the Italian Friends of Neve Shalom since she wrote a research paper about that Jewish-Arab community, located in the Judean Hills. Here’s what she wrote me this week:

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Bergamo, my town, is the most affected by the COVID-19 in Italy nowadays. What does this mean? 

Cemetery workers and funeral agency workers in protective masks transport a coffin of a person who died from the coronavirus, into a cemetery in Bergamo, Italy, March 16, 2020.
Cemetery workers and funeral agency workers in protective masks transport a coffin of a person who died from the coronavirus, into a cemetery in Bergamo, Italy, March 16, 2020.Credit: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters

It means that something like 319 people died yesterday [Rosita’s figures are updated to March 18] in my district of Lombardy (10 million inhabitants, more or less). There were 330 deaths during the last week, compared to 23 in the same week in March last year. 

To give you an idea, the local newspaper L’eco di Bergamo usually publishes two pages of death announcements every day, and now there are 10. 

In three days last week, four of my friends or colleagues lost a parent of theirs. This has meant – once the person was hospitalized – not receiving updates on their condition because no visitors are allowed into the hospitals (but thanks to the willing medical staff who are doing their best to pass on messages); not being able to stay with them at the very end; and no possibility of burying them. Now it seems that it’s not easy to have a cremation either. Coffins are being gathered in churches for the time being. 

And what else does this mean? 

It means hearing ambulance sirens every five or 10 minutes, for hours, for days. Always. And the [tolling of] bells, the ones sounding low and slow to let us know someone’s died. This is our sad soundtrack.

The empty streets of Bergamo, Italy.
The empty streets of Bergamo, Italy.

Luckily the health system here in Lombardy is one of the best in Europe, but still an emergency is an emergency and resources are limited and definitely not enough. Family doctors work hard to treat people who tested positive in their homes, until serious breathing complications arise.

In the hospitals, we cannot properly take care of everybody; medical supplies and staff are not sufficient. Yesterday, 27 doctors and four nurses from the Italian Army came to give support to the ones on duty. And doctors and nurses get sick too, of course; a 47-year-old nurse died last week. In recent days, we have started to send patients out to other regions and also to local rehab facilities that have been turned into “hospitals.”

The toll of infected people still increases every day: 4,305 in Bergamo district as of now (545 more since yesterday). The increase is natural since the lockdown just started a week ago – so we need to wait another week to check whether it has been effective or not. And we wait, while time is taking on a completely new and unusual shape.

What does this mean for our everyday life?

Now, only grocery stores, pharmacies and banks are open. Most workers are now home, on paid or unpaid leave. Many work from home; many are not working at all.

Italian military trucks are seen by Bergamo's cemetery after the army was deployed to move coffins to neighboring provinces amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Bergamo, Italy, March 18, 2020
Italian military trucks are seen by Bergamo's cemetery after the army was deployed to move coffins to neighboring provinces amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Bergamo, Italy, March 18, 2020.Credit: Sergio Agazzi.Fotogramma/ REUT

Universities work online, and primary and secondary schools try to do that also.

Some people gather on balconies to sing every afternoon at 6 P.M. Some organize Skype parties or Facebook Live to meet up. The cultural arena, which is at the moment the most affected by the restrictions, is sharing theater plays, public readings, free movies and so on, on YouTube and other social media. 

A friend of mine who is a singer organized a Facebook Live event on Saturday and wrote online that it was important to him too to be there and to spend his time singing and playing. Actors, musicians, comedians – they are indeed using all the possibilities to spread culture, music and art so to ease the isolation. It is meaningful for us, the audience, and for them as artists too. Performance is assuming a totally different meaning.

We can go out to purchase groceries or medicines or newspapers, but only limited numbers of customers are allowed in supermarkets and shops at a time. That’s why you see people queueing outside, standing a couple of meters from each other.

If you have a dog, you can walk him. Sports activities indoors are forbidden and all sports centers are closed. We can exercise outdoors, but are all strongly invited to keep our distance and avoid any contact whatsoever.

Rosita Poloni.
Rosita Poloni.

But then, in the end, we are Italians. All sort of ironic visual content is being created at home: videos, pictures, comics. The best was a clip of a lady who is in her bathroom putting some makeup on, dressing up, donning a coat and picking up a purse. When she is asked, “Hey, where are you going?” – she replies with a certain attitude, “Well, to the kitchen of course.”

We do need a good mood and good news, and I do hope the end of this week will bring some. I’m not sure it’s realistic to consider April 3 as the true deadline of the lockdown, as was stated; this could be really long. There’s no official information about any change, just a general interpretation of how a pandemic evolves, according to researchers and doctors.

Why did it all happen here? Most probably a local hospital served as a hub for the infection; two villages nearby it are the worst hit and they are close to it (4 kilometers away from where I am writing). And also maybe because this region, Lombardy, is one of the most densely populated in Europe and one of the most dynamic and active on an economic level. That means in terms of factories, companies, services, airports, trains, universities – millions of people living, working, moving about and so on.

I am personally very disappointed by the European Union, no common position was indeed taken (until it called for a 30-day travel ban early this week).

I think it was shortsighted to manage a pandemic this way, with each country thinking only about itself, as if borders make any sense nowadays under such circumstances. That’s just a personal opinion. I feel truly European and expect the Union to work as such, to unite.

Death notices in a Bergamo paper.
Death notices in a Bergamo paper. Credit: GIOVANNI LOCATELLI/Reuters

Now more than ever, we know here in Europe and elsewhere that we are all connected, and all of us connected to our planet and its well-being. 

I wonder what more we need to understand. 

I hope other countries will learn from our experience and will be as cautious as possible now. 

It is painful, shocking and tough, for medical staff, for families losing their loved ones. It is heartbreaking to think of the generation in their 80s dying alone. They have sacrificed so much to build their personal lives and our country during a century that was not always kind to them. 

Tragedies happen every day everywhere in the world, in places with fewer resources and options for response. My hope is that the virus won’t spread where there are more vulnerable people in less favorable circumstances. And while I write this, I simply think of some refugee hotspots in Greece, for example. It is just around the corner.

We in Italy are trying our best to stop the spread of the virus and to manage our emotions, which are even more intense than usual. There’s a lot of solidarity among people and creativity being used to find solutions to everyday problems and to the isolation. Enduring all this will not be easy, but it’s not impossible either. I think that we have to be awake and clear about getting information and developing our own ideas, but I also believe we need more tenderness and understanding these days.

It is sweet and powerful to think that today, the more you take care of yourself the more you exercise your duty and right as a citizen to take care of those who are around you. And “around” is a wide, wide, wide concept.

Rosita

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