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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.
• 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.
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.