In Bergamo, Italy's ground zero, grief runs deep, yet there is faith and hope

Coffins fill up hospitals, rest homes and morgues.

By Mariella Radaelli

Published: Sun 22 Mar 2020, 10:22 PM

Last updated: Mon 23 Mar 2020, 12:24 AM

Ambulances are constantly on the move in Bergamo, a medieval town of art and industry 50km northeast of Milan. They arrive with the screeching sound of the siren to transport Covid-19 patients to isolation hospitals.

With the city on lockdown, doctors, paramedics, nurses, and priests have become silent witnesses to Bergamo's descent into calm, dignified despair.

Survivors are the winners of this invisible global war, but in the hardest-hit Italian area the body count continues to mount. In Bergamo, funeral homes receive 10 calls every hour and the city crematory is working round the clock.

"At the Monumental Cemetery in Bergamo the burials are being performed at the pace of one every a half-hour," says Don Andrea Mazzucconi, the parish priest for the Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle. "On average, there are 50 to 52 Covid-19 related fatalities per day, and one day we reached 60."

Last Wednesday, the crematorium was so overwhelmed and beyond its capacity that the Italian army had to transport bodies to crematoria outside the Lombardy region.

The ancient rituals to honour the dead and comfort the bereaved have been abandoned for fear of spreading the virus further. Although a priest is still available to bless the body, the absence of funerals is especially hard for the Bergamasks, hard-working people who are earnest, pious Catholics. They quietly endure, silently suffer, and patiently wait. There is hope that "this too shall pass" in this land that gave birth to Pope John XXIII, the "Good Pope".

Don Andrea confirms that at least 10 local priests have also died of Covid-19. Last Sunday the Bishop of Bergamo Francesco Beschi said that "our priests are many, and numerous are those who have exposed themselves to the virus to be close to their community." Several priests are lying in hospital beds while others have recovered.

"There is also profound bewilderment among the people," Don Andrea says. He paces back and forth in the cemetery where that morning he conducted two other short blessings. "This is frightening and disorientating for the community."

Coffins fill up hospitals, rest homes and morgues. As soon as possible they are taken to the cemetery. Many are now being lined up inside the cemetery church.

People die at homes as well. They are usually elders. "This is like a war. Our very competent doctors are forced to make terrible choices," says Carlo Dignola, a chief culture editor at L'Eco di Bergamo, a local daily newspaper founded in 1880. "They have to prioritise the young and otherwise healthy because they have a greater chance of survival."

Don Andrea admits that today he is subject to fear himself: "I don't want to endanger others and also myself." So he presides over an evening mass without the presence of the faithful as all public masses have been suspended. But he continues weeping with those who weep. He risks his life and tries to understand their need for meaning when life does not make sense.

It takes on the aspect of anguish because this situation escalated so quickly. The daily obituary section of the L'Eco di Bergamo newspaper has grown from just over one to 10 to 12 pages. The list not only register the old and the elderly couples who die just hours apart, but also doctors, photographers, salesmen, police officers, entrepreneurs, and blue-collar workers like Diego, a healthy man in his 40s who transported fridges to supermarkets.

To me, each death's notice is like a short poem in the Spoon River Anthology by American writer Edgar Lee Masters, who told of the injustice done in a small mid-west town with too many deaths.

"My culture pages are reduced to a minimum these days," says Dignola. "It is disappointing and also visually shocking to see how the obituaries are taking over the newspaper," he says, sounding genuinely lost.

The Bergamo cluster was first detected in the Hospital of Alzano Lombardo two days after the outbreak's epicentre in Codogno south of Milan. Alzano is a village in the Seriana Valley just 6km from the stunning Upper City of Bergamo, where the locals are reserved, generous-hearted, and sensitive to art.

"Hospitals were caught unprepared and initially both authorities and health experts sent out a wrong message about the use of masks," Dignola says. "To help manage the shortage, they said that masks weren't necessary for protecting the general public. The government should have asked our textile factories to convert their production lines into masks, in the same way manufacturers began producing weapons during WWII."

Other factors may have helped create such heartbreaking results. "Now the Mayor of Alzano says he wanted to put the area of Alzano on lockdown, but 20 days ago he was taking time," Dignola notes. "Even the Mayor of Bergamo, whom I really respect, minimised the problem at first. In the beginning, we all underestimated the perniciousness of Covid-19."

And why didn't the central government immediately declare a "red zone" at Alzano, the hotbed of contagion?

"The industry association tried to keep the factories going," he says. There are 376 companies in that valley, and several of them are leaders in revenues such as Persico that builds custom sailing yachts for the world's most renowned racing teams.

Dignola is proud of many citizens who are helping others out of altruism. "They have a strong sense of solidarity. They face death and they find hope, also metaphysical hope that begins in the dark."

As of Friday March 20, Bergamo (population 120,000) had 5,663 coronavirus infections out of the country's 47,021. The total number of deaths in Italy has now reached 4,032, and at least 695 have died in Bergamo.

"Pain challenges our faith," says Don Andrea. "Faith can waver, or it can grow deeper. We must live through this pain and see what it will bring. Will we become better men? I do not know. This can be a test for humanity."

Mariella Radaelli is editor at

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