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HEALTH

‘The pain of an entire nation’: Italy marks first day of remembrance for Covid-19 dead

Prime Minister Mario Draghi paid tribute on Thursday to the more than 103,000 people in Italy who have died of Covid-19, as the country marked its first national day of remembrance for victims for the pandemic.

'The pain of an entire nation': Italy marks first day of remembrance for Covid-19 dead
(Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP)

Draghi travelled to Bergamo, the northern province that became Europe’s first major virus flashpoint a year ago, for Italy’s first annual day of mourning for the dead.

“We cannot hug each other, but this is the day in which we must all feel even closer,” he said at the inauguration of a memorial park near the main hospital in the city of Bergamo.

“This place is a symbol of the pain of an entire nation,” he said, before witnessing the planting of one of the park’s planned 850 trees to the mournful sounds of a trumpet.

Earlier, Draghi laid a wreath at Bergamo’s cemetery and observed a minute of silence, while across the nation flags flew at half mast from all public buildings.

Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Italy chose March 18th for its coronavirus remembrance day to coincide with the day in 2020 when the army had to step in to carry away scores of coffins from Bergamo’s overwhelmed crematorium. 

At the height of the pandemic last year, Father Marco Bergamelli was blessing coffins every ten minutes.

“This place was full of coffins, there were 132 lined up at the foot of the altar,” he told AFP, opening the doors of the church at the monumental cemetery. “At the beginning, the trucks came at night, nobody was supposed to know the coffins were being taken elsewhere.”

READ ALSO: ‘Here is the Italy that has suffered’: Bergamo holds requiem for coronavirus dead

The camouflaged vehicles took away up to 70 coffins a day from the church, where they were collected after the local mortuaries filled up. The coffins were transported to cemeteries in other northern cities such as Bologna and Ferrara.

Many of the bodies that remained in Bergamo were buried in haste, often without headstones but with signs bearing photos and names of the deceased.

Almost everyone here lost a member of their family, a friend, colleague, or neighbour.

ICUs are full once again

In March 2020 alone, 670 people died in this city of 120,000 inhabitants and almost 6,000 in the province of the same name — five or six times the normal toll for that time of year.

“People saw their loved ones leave in an ambulance with a fever, and they were returned as ashes in an urn, without ever being able to say goodbye,” said Bergamelli, 66.

“It was like wartime.”

READ ALSO: Twelve statistics that show how the pandemic has hit Italy’s quality of life

A grim sense of deja vu pervades the area, as the city is once again locked down along with most of the country amid a fresh wave of infections.

A parish priest stands by coffins stored in the church of San Giuseppe in Seriate, near Bergamo, Lombardy, on March 26, 2020. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

At the Seriate hospital east of the city, the intensive care unit is once again at capacity, its eight beds occupied by coronavirus patients, even if numbers are lower than last year.

“Covid is more aggressive now, with many cases of the new English variant,” said Roberto Keim, the unit’s director.

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

‘The people of Bergamo felt abandoned’

There are many here who criticise authorities for acting too slowly to recognise the scale of the crisis last year and not imposing swift restrictions to stem the virus’s spread, including banning gatherings.

“At the beginning of March, we saw people going to funerals for victims of Covid, and themselves dying a few weeks later,” said Roberta Caprini of the Generli Funeral Home.

The 38-year-old was left to manage unprecedented demand for the family business after her father and uncle both contracted coronavirus. They later recovered.

“Normally, we organise about 1,400 burials a year. But in March 2020, we did 1,000,” she said.

To allow relatives in quarantine to say their final goodbyes, Caprini had the hearse pass underneath their balconies, and took photos of the dead herself.

But proper mourning was impossible for many. “We spent a month not knowing where my father’s body was,” said Luca Fusco, recalling the 85-year-old’s death in a care home on March 11th 2020.

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

Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

Fusco’s son Stefano created a Facebook group demanding justice for the dead, which now has 70,000 members.

The group “Noi Denunceremo” (We Will Denounce), led by Luca Fusco, has already filed more than 250 complaints with prosecutors over the way authorities handled the Covid crisis. A judicial enquiry is underway.

It took two weeks after the first cases appeared in the province on February 23rd last year for the authorities to lock down the entire Lombardy region, a measure extended one day later to the whole of Italy.

Fusco claims nobody wanted to shut down a region that is the engine of Italy’s economy.

“The people of Bergamo felt abandoned. In acting sooner, the authorities could have saved thousands of lives,” he said.

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

The prime minister also promised no let-up in an ongoing drive to scale up national vaccination efforts, despite the current controversy over the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) was due to clarify on Thursday whether the vaccine is safe after unproven accusations of links to blood clots led to its suspension in much of Europe this week.

“Whatever its decision, the vaccination campaign will continue with the same intensity, with the same objectives,” Draghi said, expressing confidence in ramped-up vaccine supplies. 

Italy’s government has set a target to triple vaccinations to 500,000 per day by mid-April, and to fully vaccinate 80 per cent of the population by mid-September.

At the same time, it put much of the country back into lockdown on Monday to contain a third wave of the virus that has put hospitals under renewed stress and claimed 431 lives on Wednesday alone.

READ MORE: How will the AstraZeneca suspension affect Italy’s vaccine rollout plans?

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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

What will a right-wing election victory mean for abortion rights in Italy?

The right-wing parties poised to win Italy’s upcoming general elections have a history of denouncing abortion. Could a new conservative government threaten reproductive rights in Italy?

What will a right-wing election victory mean for abortion rights in Italy?

When Italians go to the polls on September 25th, a coalition of three right-wing parties – Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Matteo Salvini’s League and Forza Italia, led by former premier Silvio Berlusconi – are widely expected to win the vote and secure the opportunity to form Italy’s next government.

READ ALSO: Your ultimate guide to Italy’s crucial elections on Sunday

With all three parties to the right of centre – by quite some way, in the case of Brothers of Italy and the League – activists are concerned about what Italy’s most socially conservative government in years could mean for women seeking to access abortions, as they have had the legal right to do here for over four decades.

Here’s what Italian law says about abortion, what the right-wing alliance has promised it will – or won’t – change, and what all this could mean for people in need of abortion care in Italy.

What is Italy’s law on abortion now?

Abortion – formally referred to in Italian as interruzione volontaria di gravidanza or IVG, ‘voluntary termination of pregnancy’ – has been legal in Italy since 1978.

Passed after years of protests and several other failed bills, Legge 194 (‘Law 194’) decriminalized the procedure and entitled women to request it for any reasons of physical or mental health within the first 90 days after conception.

Women can continue to seek an abortion after 90 days if a significant foetal abnormality is present, or if continuing the pregnancy would endanger the woman’s life.

READ ALSO: The long road to legal abortion in Italy

The procedure is offered free of charge to those who qualify for public healthcare in Italy.

To access it, women first must consult a doctor and discuss options “to help her to overcome the factors which would lead her to have her pregnancy terminated”.

If the patient continues to affirm her original choice, she will be issued a certificate either stating that the termination is urgent and can be carried out immediately, or, if it is not deemed urgent, that she can seek the procedure after a obligatory seven-day wait.

Campaigners in front of a banner reading ‘Don’t touch law 194’. Photo by FABRIZIO VILLA / AFP

In reality, the wait for an appointment is likely to be far longer. Law 194 also affirms the right of health workers to refuse to carry out abortions on the grounds of “conscientious objection”. 

This has translated into serious gaps in coverage across Italy, with some facilities staffed mostly or even entirely by personnel who decline to deliver abortion services.  

READ ALSO: Why abortions in Italy are still hard to access – despite being legal

In fact, a majority of gynaecologists in Italy – 64.6 percent, according to 2020 figures from the Ministry of Health – are registered objectors, as well as 44.6 percent of anaesthesiologists and 36.2 percent of non-medical staff at health facilities. 

In several parts of the country, including the regions of Sicily, Basilicata, Abruzzo, Molise and the province of Bolzano, the percentage of gynaecologists refusing to perform abortions is over 80 percent.

These doctors are probably out of step with public opinion in Italy. A 1981 referendum gave voters the opportunity to reject the new abortion law; 68 percent of them voted to keep it. 

More recently, an Ipsos poll conducted earlier this year found that 73 percent of people surveyed in Italy said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

What election promises has Italy’s right-wing alliance made about abortion?

No doubt sensing the lack of appetite for a full-scale repeal of Italy’s abortion law, the right-wing coalition has made clear that that’s not on its agenda. 

Abortion doesn’t get a single mention in the joint platform put forward by the Brothers of Italy, League and Forza Italia. 

Law 194 does appear in the Brothers of Italy programme, which promises “full application” of the legislation, “starting with prevention” of abortion.

To this end, it pledges the allocation of funds to support single and economically disadvantaged women to carry pregnancies to term, a proposal echoed by the League and presented by both parties as part of a broader drive to reverse Italy’s plummeting birth rate.

The League’s platform also calls for implementation of Law 194’s provisions on the “effective promotion of life”, including by involving non-profit groups – presumably Catholic and other pro-life ones – in pre-abortion counselling.

Forza Italia, historically the most centrist of the three, hasn’t broached the subject at all. 

READ ALSO: Salvini vs Meloni: Can Italy’s far-right rivals put differences aside?

Both Meloni and Salvini have faced questions on the campaign trail about their position on abortion, given previous comments calling abortion “a defeat for society” (Meloni), loudly professed Catholicism (Salvini) and support for European allies who have restricted access to abortion, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (both). 

“Law 194 isn’t to be touched,” Salvini told reporters this week. “The last thing Italy needs is a country divided and arguing over the laws in place – which can be improved and updated, but certainly not scrapped.”

Meloni, meanwhile, told a recent interviewer that “I never said I want to modify Law 194, but that I want to apply it”. That includes supporting women who feel obliged to abort for economic or practical reasons, she said – as well as supporting health workers who refuse to provide the procedure. 

Why are activists worried a new right-wing government could threaten abortion rights in Italy?

The problem is that Law 194 perhaps does need an overhaul if it is to guarantee access to safe, legal abortions across Italy. 

Those who support women’s right to choose have long complained that the 44-year-old law – whose primary objective, the Italian Health Ministry’s website states, “is the social protection of motherhood and the prevention of abortion” – is not fit for purpose.

A demonstrator holds a sign reading ‘free to choose’ at a rally in defence of Italy’s abortion law. Photo by FABRIZIO VILLA / AFP

Law 194 “does not establish in a strong sense women’s right to choice and self-determination: it establishes when access to it is permitted and granted,” Chiara Lalli, a writer and academic with a focus on abortion, told Il Post

The multiple doctor visits, mandatory counselling session and seven-day “reflection” period are attempts to interfere with women’s decisions, activists say. 

READ ALSO: ‘Ugly act’: Outrage in Italy over discovery of foetus graves marked with women’s names

Separately, watchdogs including the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Human Rights Watch and the Council of Europe’s committee of social rights have flagged the high rates of conscientious objectors as a persistent barrier to abortion access in Italy.

While authorities are supposed to ensure that women can access terminations and that objecting doctors can’t refuse care beyond the procedure itself, with no mechanisms to enforce these requirements specified in the existing law, in practice women report facing long delays or being denied assistance altogether. 

In the past, both Brothers and Italy and the League have resisted attempts to help the problem, such as by recruiting specifically non-objecting doctors.

While these problems are longstanding, there have been attempts in recent years to put more obstacles between women and abortions – mainly from regional or municipal politicians, who tend to be more explicit in their opposition than those on the national stage.

Many of these have come from members of the three main right-wing parties, which together have governed 14 of Italy’s 20 regions for the past two years.

And with each region largely in charge of managing its own public health service, regional governments have the power to make decisions that significantly affect how and where women can access abortions.

In Le Marche, headed by the Brothers of Italy, the regional government refused to implement 2020 national guidelines from the Ministry of Health that would have extended the window for medical abortions from seven to nine weeks and made it possible for women to obtain abortion pills in outpatient clinics and family planning centres instead of going into hospital. 

Abruzzo, whose council is also led by Brothers of Italy, as well as Piedmont and Umbria, two regions governed by the League, resisted the change too.

Priests join an anti-abortion demonstration on May 21st 2022 in central Rome. The placard reads “Human Rights are born in the womb”. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Piedmont has further allowed anti-abortion groups to set up stands in public hospitals, and councillors have proposed funnelling public funds to groups that would pay women not to abort

The League-run council in Verona declared it a “pro-life city” and called for funding for anti-abortion projects to be written into the town budget, as well as authorizing anti-abortion groups to display promotional material in council buildings. 

In the wider region of Veneto, such groups are allowed to offer family counselling services alongside those providing neutral information – a move the League’s manifesto suggests extending when it talks about involving non-profits in “the promotion of life”. 

To those who support abortion, it all starts to look like a pattern. “As soon as a right-wing council takes charge, it seems like these issues are at the top of the agenda,” Beatrice Brignone, head of the small left-wing party Possibile, told L’Espresso back in 2020.

READ ALSO: Why an Italian woman was forced to go to 23 hospitals to have an abortion

With threats to abortion access in Italy emerging locally and unchecked at national level, some activists say they would in fact welcome putting Law 194 up for debate under the next government.

“As much to better implement it as to make the necessary modifications … it is time to begin an informed discussion on abortion and free ourselves from the prejudice that the law is untouchable,” comments the Luca Coscioni Association, which advocates for freedom of scientific research and backs abortion rights.

Meloni and her allies have already made clear that such a discussion will not be among their priorities if they win this weekend. 

What do other parties say about abortion?

Abortion isn’t an issue for either the centrists Italia Viva or Azione, nor for the populist Five Star Movement.

The centre-left Democratic Party promises the full application of Law 194 throughout the country, without going into further details.

The only concrete proposals come from much smaller parties on the left: Possibile proposes establishing a quota of at least 60 percent of non-objecting staff in each health facility, as well as tracking the service provided by each region and punishing those who fail to meet minimum standards. 

The Greens and Left Alliance wants to change recruitment rules to hire more non-objecting medical staff, while +Europa suggests partnering with private clinics to expand access and making medical abortion more widely available as an outpatient procedure.

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