‘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 monkeypox cases rise to seven

Five infections have now been confirmed in Rome, as well as one in Tuscany and one in Lombardy, Italian health authorities said.

Italian monkeypox cases rise to seven

The total number Italian monkeypox cases rose to seven on Wednesday as a new case was reported by the Spallanzani hospital for infectious diseases in Rome.

Spallanzani is treating six cases: five found in Lazio and one in Tuscany, while the Sacco Hospital in Milan is treating one patient from the Lombardy region.

“There is no alarm, but the infection surveillance system is at a state of maximum attention,” Lazio’s regional health councillor Alessio D’Amato told the Ansa news agency.

Researchers at Spallanzani said the new cases are thought to be “part of a pan-European cluster” linked to cases in the Canary Islands, Ansa reported.

The first Italian case of monkey smallpox, or monkeypox, was also found in a man who had recently returned from the Canary Islands, doctors said last Thursday.

More than 250 monkeypox cases have now been reported in at least 16 countries where the virus isn’t endemic, almost all in Europe, according to the World Health Organization.

They are mostly in Spain, the UK and Portugal, with single-digit cases in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, as well as Italy.

READ ALSO: What is Spain doing to deal with rising monkeypox cases?

The illness has infected thousands of people in parts of Central and Western Africa in recent years, but is rare in Europe and North Africa.

Monkeypox is known to spread via close contact with an animal or human with the virus. It can be transmitted via bodily fluids, lesions, respiratory droplets or through contaminated materials, such as bedding.

Its symptoms are similar but somewhat milder than those of smallpox: fever, headache, muscle aches, back pain, chills, exhaustion, although it also causes the lymph nodes to swell up.

Within one to three days, the patient develops a rash, often beginning on the face then spreading to other parts of the body. 

Although most monkeypox cases aren’t serious, studies have shown that one in ten people who contract the disease in Africa die from it.

The unprecedented outbreak of the monkeypox virus has put the international community on alert.

On Monday, the European Union urged member states to take steps to ensure positive cases, close contacts, and even pets be quarantined as this is a zoonotic virus (a virus that spreads from animals to humans).