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BERGAME — Accord­ing to jour­nal­ist Francesca Nava who revealed ongo­ings in the Lom­bardy region of Italy — one of the coun­tries most affect­ed by the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic — gov­ern­men­tal author­i­ties delayed in tak­ing all nec­es­sary mea­sures. Under­lin­ing how Lom­bardy is the coun­try’s eco­nom­ic pow­er­house, Francesca says “for them, what mat­tered most was not the pan­dem­ic, but main­tain­ing pro­duc­tion. With­in two weeks, there was a catastrophe.” 

Italy, the most affect­ed by the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic of the Euro­pean coun­tries, has imple­ment­ed since March and up to this day mea­sures aimed at lim­it­ing the spread­ing of the epi­dem­ic and has now entered the third phase of its fight against the virus. In this coun­try with more than 35 000 lost lives, lim­i­ta­tions on cir­cu­la­tion have been lift­ed but with more intense con­trols on the health of trav­ellers. Italy was the first to use an app called “Immu­ni” in order to prac­tice dig­i­tal con­trols. Users can declare any pos­si­ble symp­toms and changes in their state of health. Con­nect­ed to Blue­tooth, warn­ings are then sent to those who have been in con­tact with coro­n­avirus car­ri­ers. The use of the app was not manda­to­ry and set off a num­ber of controversies.

Even if the third stage has allowed the coun­try to breath a bit after heavy loss­es of life, the tran­si­tion process does not seem to be easy.

Francesca Nava, jour­nal­ist and film mak­er, has been inform­ing pub­lic opin­ion from Berg­amo, one of the epi­cen­ters of the pan­dem­ic since its first days, and attract­ed atten­tion with her reveal­ing news arti­cles. She is also known as the direc­tor of the film “Ter­ror­ist”, deal­ing with attacks against Kur­dish towns in Turkey since 2015, and jailed jour­nal­ists. She is cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing her work of inform­ing pub­lic opin­ion by reveal­ing laps­es by the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment in the mea­sures con­cern­ing the pandemic.

Francesca drew atten­tion by the severe ques­tions she put to the author­i­ties, lay­ing bare the gov­ern­men­t’s fail­ures, with her inves­tiga­tive report­ing on work­ers exploit­ed like machines, endan­ger­ing their lives. Fol­low­ing her arti­cles on the author­i­ties’ irreg­u­lar­i­ties, some of them were forced to resign.

I talked with Francesca Nava who is also work­ing on a book about the peri­od of the pan­dem­ic in Bergamo.

Francesca Nava italie

• As a jour­nal­ist, were you able to make a dif­fer­ence in such a peri­od through the news you published?

I have been work­ing as a jour­nal­ist for over 18 years. I was born and raised in Berg­amo, the city most affect­ed by the Covid-19 epi­dem­ic around the world.

We are talk­ing about a city that has about one mil­lion and two hun­dred inhab­i­tants and that in some munic­i­pal­i­ties has suf­fered an increase in mor­tal­i­ty of two thou­sand per­cent. In a month and a half, six thou­sand peo­ple died because of Covid-19 in my town. The first out­break of coro­n­avirus in the Lom­bardy region (in north­ern Italy, where Berg­amo is locat­ed) explod­ed in the munic­i­pal­i­ty of Codog­no on the 20th of Feb­ru­ary. A red zone was imme­di­ate­ly cre­at­ed to iso­late the virus. Three days lat­er, on the 23rd of Feb­ru­ary, anoth­er out­break broke out a few kilo­me­ters away, in the munic­i­pal­i­ty of Alzano Lom­bar­do, in the province of Berg­amo, but no one iso­lat­ed it. The hos­pi­tal in Alzano Lom­bar­do, in which the first two pos­i­tive cas­es were found, did not close and sub­se­quent­ly no red zone was cre­at­ed. This caused the virus to spread like wild­fire through­out the province of Berg­amo and sub­se­quent­ly through­out Lombardy.

I imme­di­ate­ly noticed that some­thing strange was hap­pen­ing in my city, while all the media atten­tion was focused on the area around Codog­no, nick­named the “Ital­ian Wuhan”. The first two weeks of March were like hell for my city. The emer­gency rooms were full of sick peo­ple, the inten­sive care had run out of beds, the patients arrived in hos­pi­tals in clus­ters and nobody could under­stand how this was pos­si­ble. Many called for the cre­ation of a red zone, the clo­sure of that infect­ed area, but the Gov­ern­ment of Lom­bardy region and the Cen­tral Gov­ern­ment in Rome  lost pre­cious time. The prob­lem was to stop pro­duc­tion activ­i­ties, there was very strong pres­sure not to close that area and let the fac­to­ries con­tin­ue to work.

Bargame Lombardie Italie

The whole province of Berg­amo and more gen­er­al­ly Lom­bardy is con­sid­ered the eco­nom­ic engine of Italy. There are thou­sands of indus­tries, fac­to­ries and small com­pa­nies, which pro­duce a large por­tion of the Ital­ian gross domes­tic prod­uct. Clos­ing fac­to­ries meant killing the econ­o­my. Not clos­ing them killed the work­ers and many peo­ple. As a result, there were hun­dreds of dead work­ers and thou­sands of work­ers who fell ill with coro­n­avirus and many of them end­ed up in inten­sive care.

Lom­bardy closed only on March 8th. Too late, because many peo­ple were already dead. The real prob­lem is that on March 8th a red zone was not cre­at­ed, but an “orange zone”, this meant that the inhab­i­tants of Lom­bardy could not leave the region, but could work! “Go to the fac­to­ry, take the means of trans­port, move”. This move­ment of peo­ple con­tributed to the increase in the con­ta­gion index. Lom­bardy today has 16,000 Covid-19 deaths and one of the high­est mor­tal­i­ty rates in the world.

With my work of jour­nal­is­tic inquiry I tried to shed light on the med­ical neg­li­gence that took place inside the hos­pi­tal of Alzano Lom­bar­do, which polit­i­cal­ly responds to the pres­i­den­cy of the Lom­bardy Region gov­erned by Mat­teo Salvini’s par­ty, the Lega.

Even more, I tried to under­stand why nobody cre­at­ed a red zone in that area. And what I under­stood is that the eco­nom­ic, indus­tri­al fac­tor played a huge role in polit­i­cal decisions.

The Codog­no area is not a heav­i­ly indus­tri­al­ized area, where­as the Alzano Lom­bar­do area is full of com­pa­nies and indus­tries. Codog­no was closed imme­di­ate­ly after the first covid case, Alzano Lom­bar­do was nev­er closed. Accord­ing to the Lom­bardy Region and the Cen­tral Gov­ern­ment (both could cre­ate a red zone) the rea­son why they did not close imme­di­ate­ly that area lies in the fact that the virus had already spread enor­mous­ly in the ter­ri­to­ry and there­fore cre­at­ing a red zone would have been use­less . But why then did they let two weeks go by before clos­ing all of Lom­bardy? In those two weeks the dis­as­ter hap­pened. A dis­as­ter that was the heart of my inves­ti­ga­tion. Did it make a dif­fer­ence? We still don’t know, what we do know is that fol­low­ing to my inves­ti­ga­tion and reports, the Berg­amo pros­e­cu­tor’s office opened an inves­ti­ga­tion on the charge of cul­pa­ble epi­dem­ic against unknown persons.

• How were the reac­tions of the society?

Ini­tial­ly the virus spread only in north­ern Italy, in the Lom­bardy region and in Vene­to and the peo­ple who lived in cen­tral and south­ern Italy did not real­ize what was going on. I hap­pened to wit­ness embar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tions in Rome, the city where I live, where in ear­ly March, while peo­ple were already dying in Berg­amo and while hos­pi­tals in north­ern Italy were already close to col­lapse, they were unable to com­ply with the con­tain­ment mea­sures rec­om­mend­ed by the Gov­ern­ment, such as social dis­tanc­ing and the ban on gath­er­ing. The Ital­ian pop­u­la­tion who did not live in the infect­ed areas strug­gled to under­stand the quar­an­tine measures.

For this rea­son, when on March 8 the gov­ern­ment decid­ed (with great delay) to close the Lom­bardy region, due to a news leak on the night of March 7, thou­sands of peo­ple lit­er­al­ly fled from north to south, infect­ing many peo­ple who lived in south­ern regions, such as Puglia or Cam­pa­nia. Only after the gov­ern­ment imposed a nation­al lock­down and when the images of dying patients in the inten­sive care of hos­pi­tals in the north began to cir­cu­late on TV and social net­works, did all Ital­ian cit­i­zens under­stand the seri­ous­ness of the situation.

There is a date that will remain etched for­ev­er in my mem­o­ry: March 18th. That day the army vehi­cles had to take away the coffins of the dead of Berg­amo, because the city ceme­tery could no longer cre­mate them and bury them. Cit­i­zens from my town did­n’t have a cof­fin in front of which to mourn their deceased fam­i­ly mem­bers. Today there are thou­sands of peo­ple in my city who ask for jus­tice and truth for those dead. Could all those deaths be avoid­ed? Many peo­ple think the answer is yes, of course. Politi­cians act­ed late and many think that eco­nom­ic inter­ests were placed  before health con­cerns. The num­bers of this pan­dem­ic are clear: in the area where a red zone was cre­at­ed, the epi­dem­ic curve has flat­tened. Where a red zone was not been cre­at­ed (in Berg­amo) and the out­break was not iso­lat­ed, there have been thou­sands of deaths.

• You were in a bad­ly affect­ed area, how did it feel to work in such an unsafe environment?

When I was in Berg­amo I decid­ed not to go to my moth­er, but to live alone in anoth­er apart­ment so as not to risk endan­ger­ing her. I was forced to move and meet peo­ple to do my job. I used all pos­si­ble pre­cau­tions, avoid­ing con­tact with Covid patients.

After my stay in Berg­amo I spent fif­teen days of quar­an­tine alone in Rome, with­out my fam­i­ly (I have a small child) and before meet­ing my son and my hus­band I under­went a sero­log­i­cal test, which was neg­a­tive. A mem­ber of my fam­i­ly was affect­ed by the covid and died. He was a 47-year-old man who died while work­ing in Berg­amo. His boss had­n’t tak­en any pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sures. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, ter­ri­ble things have hap­pened in my city, also due to the neg­li­gence of many companies.

• How did you man­age to keep the work-life bal­ance dur­ing work­ing from home?

Good ques­tion! Work­ing from home with a small child who can­not go to school has been very heavy. For me, for him and for the whole fam­i­ly bal­ance. Chil­dren are undoubt­ed­ly the peo­ple who have suf­fered the most from this lock­down, forced to stay at home, with­out their habits, their friends. Espe­cial­ly younger chil­dren, like mine, suf­fered from the lack of being able to play outdoors.

We par­ents had to work and could­n’t spend much time with them. It was a peri­od of great emo­tion­al stress, which will take sev­er­al months to over­come. I per­son­al­ly had to work twice as hard, just for the job I do. I had also to stay away from my son for over a month in order to work on this jour­nal­is­tic inves­ti­ga­tion of mine. But I am proud of what I wrote and what I dis­cov­ered and I hope one day to be able to tell this to my son.

I am writ­ing a book on this sto­ry that has affect­ed my city.

• In Italy, the North was eco­nom­i­cal­ly advan­taged for many years and some even want­ed inde­pen­dence because they didn’t want to share their resources with the poor­er South. But coro­n­avirus hit the north hard­er. Do you think this will affect the North-South rela­tion­ship in Italy? If so, how?

This health emer­gency cre­at­ed many ten­sions between the north­ern and south­ern regions. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, the North, which has always been con­sid­ered the excel­lence of Ital­ian health­care, has been the most affect­ed. In real­i­ty that health mod­el has failed, because it has not been able to take care of the most frag­ile peo­ple, such as the elder­ly. This pan­dem­ic killed many grand­par­ents, who were aban­doned to them­selves. I believe that the Lom­bardy region will have to rethink its health sys­tem which has become focused on the pri­vate sec­tor, and less on the public.

• How do the region­al munic­i­pal­i­ties man­age this process?

It is not pos­si­ble to make a com­par­i­son, because no Ital­ian region has been hit as hard as the Lom­bardy region, where half of the Ital­ian coro­n­avirus deaths are con­cen­trat­ed. Undoubt­ed­ly,   if what hap­pened in the North had hap­pened in the south, there would have been a far worse health catastrophe.

• Much waste mat­ter  has emerged due to the coro­na.  Where is this garbage going?

Among the prob­lems caused by the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic there is also the accu­mu­la­tion and sub­se­quent dis­pos­al, of spe­cial, poten­tial­ly infect­ed waste com­ing main­ly from hos­pi­tals. In March 2020, when the pan­dem­ic explod­ed in all its dra­ma, the amount of poten­tial­ly infect­ed med­ical waste tripled com­pared to the pre­vi­ous month and it was nec­es­sary to think about how to dis­pose of it, min­i­miz­ing the risk of con­ta­gion. The waste pro­duced every year by the health and vet­eri­nary sec­tor or by relat­ed research activ­i­ties (except kitchen and restau­rant waste that does not derive direct­ly from health care) already reach­es almost 180 thou­sand tons and almost all — 160,815 tons — is made up of haz­ardous waste, most of which is incin­er­at­ed or dis­posed of in land­fills with legal pro­vi­sions. The epi­dem­ic with the nec­es­sary relat­ed health care oper­a­tions, as can be guessed, has caused a spike in the pro­duc­tion of this waste, which needs to be man­aged safely.

The most urgent sit­u­a­tion is now expe­ri­enced by com­pa­nies active in the man­age­ment of hos­pi­tal waste which in extreme cas­es, to ade­quate­ly sup­port the health struc­tures most affect­ed by the Covid-19 emer­gency, tripled the col­lec­tion and man­age­ment of waste at hos­pi­tals, increas­ing staff and resources involved in operations.

• What kind of test­ing did the health sys­tem in Italy pro­vide dur­ing the coro­na virus period?

Dur­ing this pan­dem­ic the main prob­lem was the lack of chem­i­cal reagents need­ed to ana­lyze the swabs. At the begin­ning of the epi­dem­ic, in fact, many peo­ple had dif­fi­cul­ties in being able to under­go the test to find out if they were pos­i­tive for covid. Even now that we are in phase two many peo­ple have not yet been able to take the test and there­fore can­not go back to work or work with­out know­ing if they are con­ta­gious or not.

• What was the dif­fer­ence between pri­vate and pub­lic hospitals?

In Italy the health sys­tem is pub­lic and works quite well, this means that any­one can access med­ical treat­ment with­out hav­ing to pay to be assist­ed or hos­pi­tal­ized. How­ev­er, dur­ing this emer­gency, some pri­vate clin­ics took advan­tage of the fact that all hos­pi­tals had con­vert­ed to covid facil­i­ties, halv­ing oth­er surg­eries and non-covid vis­its and did busi­ness to treat patients (non-covid) who sud­den­ly remained with­out assis­tance because of the coro­n­avirus. In gen­er­al, how­ev­er, large pri­vate hos­pi­tals con­tract­ed with the pub­lic (typ­i­cal of the Lom­bardy region) have made them­selves avail­able to covid patients.

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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Zehra Doğan
Auteure, mem­bre d’hon­neur de Kedistan
Jour­nal­iste, artiste. Jour­nal­ist, artist. Gazete­ci, sanatçı.