In sorrow, dignity: a personal account from the worst-affected city by COVID-19 in Italy

Article by Alessandro Zerbini | Illustration by Chiara Zilioli


If Bergamo’s dead could speak, they probably wouldn’t. Mind you, their silence would not be a quiet protest against the ineptitude of the political class, or an equally legitimate demonstration of disappointment for the management of the crisis. It would simply be an expression of their character. As a rule of thumb, don’t speak unless you have to.

The people of Bergamo are a curious lot. From the white peaks of the Alpi Orobie to the endless plains of the Bassa, we share a primeval-like sense of right and wrong, along with an unrealistic feeling of belonging to a community that is just too vast to be real. And yet, we feel like one.

We like to think that we are simple people, as the people of Bergamo have always been and many of us still are. Our typical dish, the joy of our Sundays, in its elementary form is a bright yellow, hot porridge made with water, cornmeal and a pinch of salt. Can’t get any simpler than that. I reckon that it is this subconscious, unshakable identification with our rural roots that ends up defining how we see the world. A picturesque group of self-reliant workaholics with an ancestral regard for solidarity.

Before our beloved local football team, Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio started winning matches on a weekly basis, the city and the surrounding province would just not appear on the radar. Now we do, and for all the wrong reasons.

It all officially started on February 23, when the first two cases of Coronavirus in the province of Bergamo were confirmed. The virus had already been spreading throughout the region, but due to the lack of awareness and the hesitant reaction of public authorities, for Bergamo it was too late before it even began. In the following weeks, the number of deaths would grow to unseen levels, with the figures recorded in March showing an increase of 568% vis-à-vis the previous years.

When the severity of the pandemic around Bergamo started to emerge, with punishing figures increasing by the day, I was abroad. Physically removed from my community, I was still able to live it all through social media. And it hurt. Watching from afar the sufferings of so many people with whom I shared my roots reminded me of my impotence in facing the situation.

The only thing I felt right to do was going home as soon as possible to join them in their struggle, or at least suffer by their side. It is utterly stupid and a bit selfish, if you think about it, to rush to the epicentre of a lethal pandemic when the local healthcare system is on the verge of being overwhelmed. Yet, eventually, I returned to my Ithaca.

At the height of the crisis, every day was like spinning the Wheel of Fortune. You hoped with all your heart that no one would die that day, or that, at least, the number of recorded deaths would be lower than the day before, a timid sign that the curve was starting to decline and the worse would soon be over. But you also selfishly wished that, if someone had to die that day, it wouldn’t be anyone you cared for or knew personally. The wish would often go unfulfilled, and too many times the wheel would stop on the wrong wedge.

In the early days of the lock-down, it was also very hard to find out who hadn’t made it or had been hospitalized. Online, privacy concerns prevented civil authorities from sharing the names of the victims. In real life, the traditional forms of such announcements were barely retrievable. Obituaries would still be pasted to the walls around town but, with few people leaving the house, you would only hear their names days later.

Sometimes, the insufficient space on the placard would mean that you only had a day’s time to read the sad, cold words announcing the end of a person’s life. The mournful, sorry toll of the death knell was also suspended to prevent illicit funeral attendance, leaving the silence of empty streets and confined lives to be broken only by the violent and fleeting sound of ambulance sirens.

This spiritual isolation from the community felt unjust and bitter. The remorse you’d feel letting someone pass on without a proper goodbye painfully added to the intolerable impossibility of bringing consolation to their loved ones. In all human societies, a loss is compensated by the strengthened presence of the community around those who are left behind.

When the number of victims exceeded our capacity to offer a proper disposal to their remains, the army had to step in to move coffins to nearby cities for cremation. A disheartening sight for every spectator, it felt as another sign of our collective failure to take care of our own.

In the chilly air of March, grief was floating about along with anger, fear, sadness, and, increasingly, resignation. However, every now and then, merged with the fragrance of blooming flowers, you could also breathe in hints of hope, resilience, pride and courage. And most of all, an undying sense of community.

Spring was around the corner, but some seemed to be more aware of it than others, and were intent on showing to everyone that it was time to pick ourselves up. The record time construction of a hospital in Bergamo’s fair pavilion by local volunteers, the heart-warming stories of COVID-19 survivors returning home from other regions’ and countries’ hospitals, personal poems published in the local papers sharing with the readers their authors’ love for Bergamo, countless banners hanging around the province urging everyone not to give up, the moving expressions of solidarity from all around the world…

Bergamo will be forever scarred by this pandemic, and the lives that we’ve lost will never be recovered. But this won’t stop us from doing what we do best: building together, in silence, a stronger community.

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