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‘Never give up’: volunteers raise hospital, and spirits, in Italy's virus-wracked Bergamo

A volunteer welder at work building a field hospital for coronavirus patients in Bergamo, Italy's worst-hit city, on March 27, 2020.
A volunteer welder at work building a field hospital for coronavirus patients in Bergamo, Italy's worst-hit city, on March 27, 2020. © Miguel Medina, AFP

Whenever Italy is struck by calamity, Bergamo’s volunteers are among the first to rush to the rescue. Now that disaster has struck at home, the city worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic is finding strength in its trademark comradeship and resilience.

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On February 19, tens of thousands of people of all ages streamed out of Bergamo’s Alpine foothills heading for Lombardy’s regional capital, Milan. They travelled by train, car and bus to the city’s famed San Siro stadium, borrowed for the night to host one of the biggest games in the history of their hometown club

Fans of Atalanta, a “provincial" team with a proud following and perhaps the most beautiful name in football, were in for a treat. True to their namesake, the Greek goddess known for her lethal speed and beauty, the players in blue and black ripped apart their more renowned Spanish opponents to seal a sensational win.

It was the best of nights, before the worst of times.

The partying that followed would be Bergamo’s last night of insouciant revelling. Two days later, Italy’s first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was reported south of Milan. By then, the virus had spread far and wide across Lombardy, Italy’s most populous region, eventually hitting Bergamo and its province harder than anywhere else.

“It’s like the Third World War rolled over us, but killing quietly,” says Nicola Cattaneo, one of the fans who made the 50-kilometre trip to San Siro back in February, in what now feels like another life. 

The flags of Italy and Atalanta hang over closed shops in a deserted street of Albino, near Bergamo.
The flags of Italy and Atalanta hang over closed shops in a deserted street of Albino, near Bergamo. © Miguel Medina, AFP

A week after the match, Cattaneo’s mother went into the local hospital for routine pancreatitis treatment. There she was infected with Covid-19, a potentially lethal disease that, according to some estimates, would go on to infect one in four people in Bergamo’s province. Cattaneo has now gone 48 days without seeing her.

Like other overwhelmed health centres across Lombardy, Bergamo’s hospital had become a vehicle of contamination, with patients and medical staff infecting one another. The need for more beds soon became critical, so when Cattaneo received a call for volunteers to help build a second hospital, the 37-year-old painter didn’t think twice.

“I was on the site at 6 o’clock the next morning, with a dozen other volunteers. Hundreds more would follow,” he says, recalling the extraordinary collective effort that helped erect a field hospital inside Bergamo’s conference centre in just 10 days. “It was a beautiful experience,” Cattaneo adds. “We were all one big family, working from dawn until long after dusk for our people and our lost ones.”

The “family” included two dozen of Cattaneo’s friends from the Curva Nord, Atalanta’s core supporters, and a host of electricians, plumbers and other local artisans from Bergamo’s famously industrious province, who sang in chorus as they laboured through the day. Among them was Claudio Lanfranchi, a self-proclaimed handyman who spent “between 14 and 15 hours per day” on the site.

“Every one of us in the Bergamo area knows somebody who has died, and every day people continue to die,” says the stove shop owner, whose 20-year-old apprentice also volunteered for the job. “I can do most practical things," he adds. "If someone like me doesn’t help out, then who will?”

‘Biological bomb’

For many outside Italy, the first sense of the tragedy unfolding in Bergamo and its province came by way of a video that circulated widely on social media in mid-March. It compared the obituary pages from the most recent edition of the Eco di Bergamo, the local newspaper, with those from a month earlier. From two pages in normal times, the section had swollen to a staggering 10.

Then came the pictures of coffins lined up inside churches for want of space in the hospital and cemetery morgues, and the harrowing stories of people dying and mourning in isolation, far from their loved ones. Despite the local crematoria operating round-the-clock, the government was forced to send in the army to collect coffins and transport them to other regions, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away. 

Marco Dell’Oro, a senior editor at the Eco di Bergamo, says the locals may never know exactly how many lives have been lost to Covid-19. He points to the largely unspoken carnage at the province’s care homes for the elderly, where more than one in ten have died, without being tested for the virus.

“We barely have test kits for the living, let alone the dead,” he explains. “For weeks now Bergamo has been burying its dead without knowing for certain what killed them.”

Officially, the virus has killed just over 2,000 people in Bergamo’s province, but experts warn that the real toll is much higher. Dell’Oro’s newspaper has calculated that five times as many people died in March compared with the same period last year. He says: “Everyone knows the virus is to blame, even though there’s no scientific proof.”

The endless flood of victims has forced the city of Bergamo to send bodies to less burdened crematoriums, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away.
The endless flood of victims has forced the city of Bergamo to send bodies to less burdened crematoriums, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away. © Piero Cruciatti, AFP

Just why Lombardy, Italy's richest and most powerful region, accounts for more than half of Italy’s fatalities — and why Bergamo’s province has been hit hardest — has been the subject of much controversy. One reason put forward by doctors, and by the city’s own mayor, is the football match at San Siro, which a prominent medic has described as a “biological bomb”.

“Just four days after the game, the government announced it was suspending all sport events for an indefinite period, to avoid spreading the disease,” Dell’Oro recalls. At the time, his thoughts went to the 40,000 Atalanta fans huddled together at San Siro. He wondered, “What difference do four days make?” 

A Spanish journalist who was at the game would later become the second person to be infected in the Valencia region. And one in three players at Valencia, Atalanta’s opponents on the night, would eventually test positive for Covid-19. Even Atalanta’s charismatic captain, Papu Gomez, has suggested it was “all down” to the football match in Milan.

Others have blamed the stubborn work ethic of an industrious province that counts among Italy’s economic powerhouses. In the crucial early stages of the outbreak, local officials and entrepreneurs were noticeably reluctant to go into lockdown when other parts of Lombardy were being sealed off. “Bergamo doesn’t stop” became a popular slogan among businesses.

“For several days we were in a limbo, expecting Bergamo to be declared a ‘red zone’. But the authorities continued to dally,” says Dell’Oro. “We have paid very dearly for that delay.”

Italy’s Alpine rescue workers

While it is likely that Bergamo’s resilience — and, perhaps, its overconfidence — aggravated the crisis at first, the same spirit is now helping the province claw its way out of the abyss. 

“We’re a hard-working people, not the type that gives up,” says Lanfranchi, citing the city’s unofficial motto mola mia — “never give up”, in the local dialect. The slogan has been plastered on walls, bridges and T-shirts, and is now an increasingly popular hashtag too. It was engraved on leather bracelets handed out to the volunteers who helped build the field hospital in record time.

The hospital’s construction was masterminded by the Alpini, a historic mountain regiment best known today for its voluntary work in disaster relief. Their iconic feathered hats are a fixture of emergency sites across Italy, a country blessed with more wonders and tormented by more natural calamities than any other in Europe.

“Wherever there is an earthquake or a flood, the Alpini are always present,” says Dell’Oro, noting that many current and retired members live in the Bergamasca. “They are used to setting up field hospitals. What they don’t expect, is having to set one up at home.”

Volunteers at work building a field hospital for Covid-19 patients in Bergamo on March 27, 2020.
Volunteers at work building a field hospital for Covid-19 patients in Bergamo on March 27, 2020. © Miguel Medina, AFP

While other governments have rushed to build temporary hospitals to fight the coronavirus pandemic, Bergamo has relied largely on the resourcefulness of its own people. The Alpini supplied the high-tech gear; various local structures chipped in with beds, linen and other equipment; and the population provided the money, the skills and the workforce. 

Staffing the hospital has proved to be the toughest part, with Lombardy’s health system already and depleted and many doctors down with the virus. However, volunteers are starting to arrive from other regions, including a nurse from faraway Umbria who said she owed the Alpini “a debt of gratitude” since her region was struck by an earthquake four years ago.

For the time being, the symbolic importance of such gestures largely outweighs the hospital’s practical worth.

"It sends out a message of hope for the future,” says Cattaneo, the Atalanta fan, who slept at the Alpini’s nearby base during the construction work. He is hopeful “Italians will learn from this experience that we are a lot more united and generous than we think.”

In medical terms, “the facility has been of very limited use so far,” Dell’Oro concedes. “But the idea that Bergamo succeeded in building a hospital in just 10 days has moved everyone here,” he adds. “It’s a source of pride that gives us strength to continue the battle.”

Where that battle will lead to is still anyone’s guess. Though Bergamo appears to have put the worst of the pandemic behind it, the threat of a second wave is high on people’s mind. And with the area’s thriving factories silent for well over a month now, the economic cost of the virus — like the human cost — is set to be astronomical. 

“Our lives will inevitably change, there is no going back,” Dell’Oro warns. “Who knows when bars, restaurants and cinemas will reopen? Who knows when Atalanta will play in a packed stadium again?”

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