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A year after army trucks carried away the dead, Bergamo fights to recover

March 18 marks one year since images of convoys of army trucks carrying away the coronavirus dead in Bergamo shocked the world. Now, the northern Italian province that reached breaking point during the first wave of coronavirus fights to recover.

Once best known for the Renaissance-era architecture of its historic old town, which sits on a hill overlooking the modern city, Bergamo quickly found itself at the epicentre of what was then Europe’s worst outbreak of coronavirus.

A year later, people are going about their daily lives as much as they can under current restrictions, but the nightmare of last year hangs over them as the grim anniversary approaches. Covid has killed more people in Bergamo province than the Second World War.

“Obviously now the enemy is different from the one that in the 40s manifested itself with bombing, raids and rifles. In our case it was an invisible but equally lethal enemy,” said the town’s mayor Giorgio Gori, speaking to Reuters from his office ahead of commemorative ceremonies that will be held to honour victims on Thursday (March 18).

After the first locally transmitted case of coronavirus emerged in late February, the province’s hospitals were soon overwhelmed.

At a cemetery in Nembro, a town near Bergamo, grave after grave of coronavirus victims was marked by a simple wooden cross adorned by a piece of paper with the dead person’s name, date of birth and death and a small photograph.

With morgues and funeral services unable to keep up with the number of deceased, Bergamo requested the army to step in.

From March 18, long columns of military trucks began carrying away the dead to other cities. Bergamo was thrust into the centre of the world’s attention as the shocking image became a chilling symbol of the global pandemic.

“Those trucks showed us the huge number of victims, so high that we were no longer able to bury their bodies, during those days we were not able to cremate the bodies of the deceased,” Gori said.

“We knew what was happening, we knew what was happening in our families, in our houses, in our streets and in our working places so for us it was a ‘normal’ situation. But for the rest of the world that image was perhaps the emblem of the tragedy in Bergamo and, more generally, perhaps it became the most symbolic image of the Covid pandemic, or at least of the first wave that hit our country,” he said.

During the first wave, the northern region of Lombardy was the hardest hit, hospitals were crowded and overwhelmed and medical staff were working around the clock.

The frontlines were moved beyond hospitals as special teams tried to keep patients alive at home, away from the saturated wards where thousands were dying.

Giulia Villa, a 33-year-old local doctor, was one of the staff of the so-called USCA (Special Continuity Assistance Units) teams that were set up by authorities last year to offer specialised treatment during home visits to coronavirus patients, keeping them out of crowded hospitals.

Getting ready to make a home visit took at least 15 minutes as she dressed in a full body suit with plastic covers for her hair and feet as well as gloves, a face mask and protective goggles.

The personal toll was enormous as she dealt with sick and frightened people struggling for life or preparing to watch a family member die.

Villa said she will never forget the memories that are still so vivid in her mind, one year on.

“I will certainly never forget the images of the faces and eyes of the people in need, who were sick at home and saw us, strange people all covered in protective clothing. They were looking for help, they were frightened by our presence so there was help but also fear,” she said.

“All those people I saw in that period will remain etched forever in my memory.”

Fear of the virus was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Villa and her colleagues could not sleep, people were constantly calling. Some had to stay at home with dead bodies of their loved ones as funeral services could not keep up.

“These people were afraid,” she said.

Villa has worked with the USCA, dealing with patients who were suspected to have Covid and infected with Covid, for a year.

Despite the resurgence of the virus in Italy, conditions in Bergamo have not worsened to the extent of last year.

Even so, residents both young and old say the pandemic has fundamentally changed people in the city – they are desperate for the pandemic to end, but so much hardship has taught them the value of life’s simple pleasures.

“In my opinion the pandemic has changed people, people have become more irritable and desperate to escape this situation but unfortunately it is not possible,” said 80-year-old Siro Carra, who is retired and survived the virus when he was infected last year.

“We are more aware of how valuable every day is, we know that we must not waste the time we have. This situation has united us as a city and I hope this situation will be resolved soon because we are tired,” said 21-year-old student Ricardo Baggi.

One glimmer of hope comes from vaccinations. Like many European Union countries, Italy got off to a slow start, but the government has promised it will significantly step up its campaign.

“We cannot say that we have returned to the previous situation certainly and we will not be until we have finished the vaccinations,” mayor Gori said.

In Bergamo, a mass vaccination centre has been set up at the Fiera exhibition centre that was transformed into a temporary hospital during the peak of the pandemic. A large mural thanking health workers drapes the entrance, with a picture of a doctor in full protective gear embracing Italy.

“The answer is: let’s…come back stronger than before,” Gori said.

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