May 14, 2020 / 10:36 AM / 23 days ago

City at center of Italy's COVID-19 tragedy works to heal 'deep scar'

BERGAMO, Italy (Reuters) - After months leading his city through one of Europe’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks, Giorgio Gori, mayor of the northern Italian town of Bergamo, says the worst of the health crisis may be past. The new challenge of rebuilding is just beginning.

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 what Gori described as the epicentre of an earthquake.

After the first case of the new coronavirus emerged in late February, the city’s hospitals were soon overwhelmed, and with morgues unable to keep up, convoys of army trucks carrying away the dead became a chilling symbol of the global pandemic.

“It was very painful for many weeks in March and April,” Gori told Reuters in his office in the neoclassical Palazzo Frizzoni.

With more than 12,000 cases still being treated in the province around Bergamo, he said the crisis was not over, but added: “Between that moment and now, there’s been an enormous change.”

The rate of new infections has slowed and the city is beginning to reawaken from the enforced hibernation it entered in early March when Lombardy, which accounts for around half of Italy’s 30,000 coronavirus dead, went into lockdown.

Roberto Cosentini, head of the emergency room at Papa Giovanni Hospital, recalled the “scary sensation” as patients arrived every day, but said doctors had learned and adapted.

However, like others, he is acutely aware that recovery is fragile. “We are tired. I fear a second surge would be much tougher for us than the first in terms of mental health.”

As well as the fear of the epidemic flaring up again, authorities must face the economic shock left by weeks of inactivity.

“The health alert is receding but the social alert is growing,” Gori said. Even in Bergamo, a prosperous city in one of the richest areas of Europe, the impact has been devastating.

“The economy of a city is made up of so many small businesses - they’re not big factories or big corporations,” he said. “They haven’t been working for three months. How are they going to manage?”

Part of the answer may come in stimulus measures like those unveiled by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte late on Wednesday. But much will depend on the city itself.

The mayor of Bergamo Giorgio Gori is seen in his office in Palazzo Frizzoni, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Bergamo, Italy May 13, 2020. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

“The private pain will remain for people who’ve lost a brother, a father. You don’t get over that,” Gori said. “But in the end, there’s no other way but to get on and manage it ourselves.”

DEEP SCARS

How quickly places like Bergamo recover may be a pointer for other regions in Europe that were hit later. But the shock it has experienced remains profound.

“I believe a very deep scar will stay with us. It reached all of us and entered our homes,” said Bruno Bonassi, deputy editor of the region’s L’Eco di Bergamo newspaper, whose swollen obituary pages were another stark symbol of the crisis.

The daily, which normally published fewer than 20 death notices, was putting out almost 90 a day as the virus spread in March and reached peaks of 110-116 on some days, said Daniela Taiocchi, who compiled many of the notices.

At a cemetery in Nembro, a town near Bergamo, grave after grave is 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.

The real number of coronavirus dead may never be known as only those who died in hospital were normally tested, leaving hundreds who died at home or in care homes uncounted in the statistics.

Gori, who has become a familiar figure on Italian television criticising both the government in Rome and regional authorities in Lombardy for failing to move more quickly, believes the true numbers may be twice the level officially reported.

As to why his region found itself at the centre of the maelstrom, he says the first carrier may never be identified. But the virus was probably present in December, well before authorities became aware of it.

“So when we sounded the alarm, COVID had already been circulating for weeks.”

While Lombardy’s health system was generally highly rated, its dependence on large hospitals left it more vulnerable than regions like neighbouring Veneto, with a stronger network of local health services that could deal with patients before they ended up in intensive care.

“We have got hospitals of the highest quality,” he said. “But as everything rained down on them at once, they were absolutely overwhelmed.”

Slideshow (18 Images)

Now, he said, Italy would have to rediscover some of the spirit behind its post-World War Two recovery and reconstruction.

“We want Bergamo, which without wanting to became a symbol around the world for this epidemic, to be a symbol of rebirth.”

Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mike Collett-White

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