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The Italian village left devastated after coronavirus claims 36 lives in 23 days

The village of Vertova - with its ancient stone houses northeast of Milan - has 4,600 inhabitants and usually sees around 60 deaths the entire year. But the coronavirus epidemic has claimed the lives of 36 villagers in just 23 days.

The Italian village left devastated after coronavirus claims 36 lives in 23 days
Photo: AFP

The obituaries posted on a board where the newspapers might otherwise hang tell the story of an Italian village living through a disaster the mayor calls “worse than the war”.

The war Vertova mayor Orlando Gualdi refers to is World War II — a cataclysmic event more and more Italians cite while describing the damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

Italy's death toll is somewhat hard to grasp when they are read out every evening in Rome. The total across the country soared to 6,820 by Wednesday.

AFP

It is 36 in Vertova.

But the village — its ancient stone houses hugging the side of a mountain 70 kilometres (45 miles) northeast of Milan — has 4,600 inhabitants and usually sees around 60 deaths the entire year.

“It's worse than the war,” Gualdi told AFP in one of the village's empty squares.

Four freshly made coffins are bunched together near the entrance of a chapel nearby.

They are waiting to be cremated and then buried in the cemetery in the back.

Funerals have been banned for weeks and the ceremony will be a muted affair attended by caretakers wrapped in protective suits and masks.

AFP

The cemetery itself remains closed to the villagers because public gathering are banned — so grieving for your loved ones with flowers at their grave is no longer allowed.

“No one deserves such a horrible death,” the mayor said.

“It is absurd to think that there could be such a pandemic in 2020.”

'Everything will be fine'

Vertova and the city of Bergamo to its south are at the epicentre of the Italian outbreak.

The rates of deaths and infections here are currently some of the highest in the world — and worse than those officially reported out of China's Hubei province.

Vertova's cobbled streets and winding alleyways stand hauntingly empty for days on end. Ancient frescos with the Virgin Mary overlook the locked squares.

And anyone who does step outside is wearing a mask — even if they might not be fresh ones. 

Vertova's mayor Orlando Gualdi (R) talks with an inhabitant in the village located near Bergamo, Lombardy, on March 24. Photo: AFP

“Unfortunately, there aren't any masks left in the village. There is no more disinfectant,” 63-year-old Augusta Magni said.

“I had to make my own mask with a piece of cloth and a sewing machine.”

Another local says that almost everyone in the village knows someone who has been touched by the virus in some way.

“Each one of us has relative, friends and loved ones who've been infected,” sales agent Claudio Bertocchi said.

But not everyone is downbeat.

Children's drawings of rainbows and a message reading “Everything will be fine!” hang from some windows.

Italian flags are tied to balcony railings.

AFP

And the government-run National Research Council reports that 57 out of Italy's 107 provinces have already hit their peak of the virus's spread.

Italy's numbers are improving “and the containment measures are delivering the desired effect, even if we are in the initial phase of the slowdown,” the research council said.

But the village mayor is still counting the dead.

“Thirty-six deaths between March 1 and today,” he said.

“Only then do you understand the magnitude of what's happening here.”

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COVID-19

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”

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