BÉRGAMO, Italy (AP) – The priest blessed the coffin. There were no flowers or hugs. Francesca Steffanoni and her mother left the main cemetery in Bergamo as quickly as possible, after a farewell that lasted no more than five minutes.
Bergamo is the epicenter of the province most affected by the coronavirus, Lombardy, and has registered hundreds of deaths. Families cannot accompany their loved ones in the final agony or conduct traditional funerals. Cemeteries are so overwhelmed by the death toll that military trucks had to move 65 bodies to another city to be cremated this week.RELATED
Steffanoni and her mother attended the funeral of an 82-year-old relative, a widower, with heart problems, who contracted the virus. They wore masks and gloves, and kept their distance.
“In theory, we shouldn’t have gone. But he was one of the last relatives we had left, ”explained Steffanoni.
Unofficial figures indicate that more than 600 people infected with the virus died in the province, which is attached to the Alps and where more than a quarter of deaths have occurred in Lombardy despite the fact that its population is one tenth of the 10 million people who live in the province.
“We are facing the largest COVID emergency after Wuhan,” said Dr. Luca Lorini, director of the intensive care unit at Bergamo’s main hospital, called Juan Pablo 23, which has 500 beds for people with the virus. Wuhan is the Chinese city where the outbreak broke out, which then spread throughout the world.
As alarming as they are, the figures do not reflect the magnitude of the tragedy.
Authorities say they do not take into account the increase in deaths in the general population that had not been screened for the virus. Last week 400 people died in Bergamo and 12 neighboring towns, four times the number of deaths registered in the same period last year, according to the Bergamo mayor’s office. Only 91 had the virus detected.
People involved in the fight against the virus – hospital officials, funeral directors, city officials, and union leaders – told the Associated Press that a crisis of this magnitude could have been prevented if a large red containment zone was created. before, around February 23, as they asked.
The containment measures were applied in Bergamo only on March 8, two weeks later, without ever having isolated two cities in the valley where the first outbreaks were registered.
“When the virus arrived, there were no containment measures and it spread through the valleys quickly. Some said it was a simple flu. We doctors knew this was not the case, ”said Lorini.
Funeral homes were already registering an alarming increase in the number of deaths in January and February, an anomaly reported to authorities, according to Antonio Ricciardi, director of the local funeral association. Her business conducted 611 funerals from March 1 to 18, when she rarely records more than 100 in a month.
After the first death occurred in the neighboring town of Alzano Lombardo and other cases were confirmed on February 23, doctors at the Juan Pablo XXIII hospital created an intensive care unit dedicated exclusively to patients with the virus. Two days earlier, the confinement of the residents of ten cities in southern Lombardy had been arranged, which was successful and served as a model for the order to remain in the houses issued by the national government on March 9.
No official explanation has been given to the decision not to include Bergamo in the red zone.
Eliana Como, leader of the influential metallurgical union FIOM, said she believes that the economic importance of the region influenced the decision not to declare the towns in the mouth of the Seriana Valley, the headquarters of the metallurgical industry and craft workshops, a red zone.
“I think commercial interests weighed heavily on the decision,” said Como, who lives in Bergamo.
In the fourth week of the epidemic, Lorini estimates that the actual number of infected is five to ten times the official figure, which is 4,645 people. Currently, only those who present in hospitals with severe symptoms are examined and not those who are ill at home.
“We suspect that the true number (of deaths from the virus) remains hidden,” said Francesco Alleva, spokesman for the mayor’s office in Bergamo. “Because many people die at home or in facilities for the elderly, without ever having been examined to see if they had the virus.”
That is why the authorities insist on asking people not to leave their home. Police vehicles with loudspeakers urge people not to go out except for some major need, such as buying groceries or going to work, if they cannot do it from home. In an effort to discourage people from leaving, Mayor Giorgio Gori suspended all public wi-fi services and arranged for gambling machines to be closed in the traditional “tobacco shops” (they sell cigarettes and other products), which continue open.
While 300 new cases a day are recorded today compared to 500 last weekend, Lorini said it will take at least another week to know if the containment measures are working.
One of the most dramatic aspects of the crisis is not being able to comfort the relatives of infected people in hospitals or go to funerals. Hospitals try to keep people informed through phone calls, but when someone is dying, Lorini says, a visit “would be a possibility of unnecessary contagion.”
“It is terrible to lose a loved one and not be able to hug them. But this is what has happened during epidemics for thousands of years and will continue to happen, “said Lorini.
When a loved one dies from the virus, their family members cannot choose the funeral home where they can keep them safe. By government decree, the dead are buried with their clothes on, wrapped in sterile blankets and placed in coffins as quickly as possible.
“There is a very important psychological aspect in families who cannot see the body,” said Ricciardi. “Without a corpse, it is difficult to assimilate death.”
The city’s drama is visible in the local newspaper, L’Eco di Bergamo, which in normal times dedicates a page to the obituaries and now needs nine, ten or 11.
Barry reported from Soave, Italy.
Associated Press coverage of medical and scientific topics is supported by the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.