Codogno one year on: How is the first Italian town hit by coronavirus faring?

On February 21st 2020, Italy's first locally-transmitted coronavirus cases were detected in the town of Codogno. Today, the town is changed forever.

Codogno one year on: How is the first Italian town hit by coronavirus faring?
On Sunday Codogno, a small city of 15,000 people, will mark one year since it recorded the first locally acquired case of Covid-19 in Italy. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Entering the gate of the Codogno cemetery, with its four massive pillars and “Resurrection” written in Latin overhead, the ravages of coronavirus are not immediately apparent.

But beyond the scores of kneeling marble angels and ornamental graves, a newer cloister of simple granite crypts bear witness to the onslaught of what was then a terrifying new virus on this modest northern Italian city.

In a ceremony on Sunday, Codogno will mark one year since it recorded the first locally acquired case of Covid-19 in Italy, in what became the first major outbreak in Europe.

The virus tore through the wider Lombardy region, marking Italy as the new epicentre of the global pandemic that has now claimed more than two million lives — including almost 100,000 in Italy.

February 23, February 24, February 28, read the dates on the shiny grey crypts. Underneath engraved names, and sometimes the image of a smiling face, the dates gain momentum: March 1, March 5, March 10, 13, 17…

The virus tore through the wider Lombardy region, marking Italy as the new epicentre of the global pandemic that has now claimed more than two million lives. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

The surge in cases took everyone by surprise, said Roberto Codazzi, 58, the cemetery's deputy custodian. “In two months, we saw what we usually had in a year,” he told AFP.

READ ALSO: How are countries across Europe faring in the battle against Covid-19?

With his colleague, Codazzi saw the intensity of the virus on display after Friday, February 21 — when a 38-year-old man known as “Patient 1” was identified at the city's hospital after a doctor broke protocol to test him for coronavirus. Within hours, six cases had been confirmed in the town.

On Saturday, there were already bodies lined up outside the cemetery for burial.

'Who will be next?'

Today in Codogno, a small city of 15,000 people, talk of Covid-19 centres on shuttered businesses, rent to pay and the umpteenth restriction on normal life.

Yet few can hear the sound of a siren without a pang.

Emy Cavalli, the third-generation owner of the Central Bar on the main plaza, recalled the eerie, early days of the lockdown imposed on Codogno and 10 other northern communities after the first case was identified, immediately followed by the first two confirmed coronavirus deaths in Italy, one of them a 77-year-old woman outside Codogno.

“I remember how silent it was,” said Cavalli. “Every three minutes you heard the sound of an ambulance.

“We asked ourselves, 'Who will it be? Who will be next?'”

Within a month, Codogno's death toll more than tripled, with 154 deaths in March versus 49 in the same period a year earlier, Mayor Francesco Passerini told AFP.

“They couldn't keep up,” Passerini said of the cemetery workers, who were eventually reinforced by the civil protection unit.

Codogno's death toll more than tripled compared to the same period the previous year, said Codogno mayor Francesco Passerini. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Caskets awaiting burial were stored in a shuttered church, the cemetery was shut to the public and funeral notices were printed without dates to discourage potential mourners from breaking the quarantine to pay their respects. 

The daily coffins awaiting custodian Codazzi frequently brought an unwelcome shock: “I said, 'Oh no, I know him! I just saw him a week ago.'” 

Codogno's Red Cross unit was zigzagging the territory, with almost 500 ambulance trips in March alone.

“When they call us, we don't know what we're going to find,” said the head of emergency services, Luciano Parmigiani.

Meanwhile, family doctor Andrea Lozzi was working day and night to keep his patients out of the hospital, from which too often they never returned.

Lozzi — whose name locals evoke with reverence for his tireless work — declines all interviews, explaining to AFP: “You have to put your hands into your work, and not your mouth.”

READ ALSO: How will Italy's Covid-19 strategy change under the new government?

Residents outside a wine bar in a main shopping street in Codogno. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

'Journey of suffering'

By the time Codogno's situation began to improve, attention had turned to the worst-hit province of Bergamo some 70 kilometres (43 miles) north, where images of army convoys transporting coffins broadcast the horror of Italy's outbreak to the world.

As the country's death toll spiralled to 4,825 one month after Codogno's first case, some questioned whether a March 8 lockdown of populous Lombardy – and Italy one day later – had come too late, while scores of nursing home fatalities spurred allegations of mismanagement by health authorities.

On March 25, Mattia Maestri, Codogno's “Patient 1”, was released from hospital, cured.

Two months later, President Sergio Mattarella visited Codogno's cemetery, recalling the place “where our journey of suffering began”. A marble plaque remembers the dead. 

In his office at the Red Cross, as workers finish building a memorial outside, Parmigiani scrolls through an operations log from those first weeks in 2020.

He points to where the numbers begin to decline, and pauses: “We managed to fight something no one even knew what it was.”


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Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”