The well-tended graves are neatly lined up one after the other, each with a photo of the dead. The youngest was in his mid-30s, the rest from their 40s to their 90s. What distinguishes the plot from others in Bergamo’s Monumental cemetery is that they all died between March and May.
“The dead arrived in force – 50 or 60 a day – they didn’t stop coming for two months,” a cemetery manager, who asked not to be named, told the Observer. “It was horrendous. And now infections are rising again. Young people are infecting older people, and so soon the dead will start arriving again.”
When the pandemic struck Bergamo, mortuaries and cemeteries quickly filled up. Haunting images of army trucks carrying coffins away from the same cemetery to be buried or cremated elsewhere in March, when the northern Italian province was at the centre of the unfolding pandemic and funeral services struggled to cope, gave a hint to the rest of the world of what was to come.
Now, after Italy took a dramatic turn for the worse following months of relative calm, nowhere is the fear of history repeating itself more palpable than in Bergamo. Covid-19 is estimated to have killed more than 7,000 across the province during the first wave. Speak to Bergamo residents, and everybody knows somebody who either died or was infected. This wasn’t so much the case beyond the surrounding Lombardy region, which accounts for the lion’s share of Italy’s almost 37,000 coronavirus deaths, because the tough two-month national lockdown shielded the south from the ravages of the first wave.
“I don’t think people really understood what happened here,” said Luca Remondini, the owner of i-Lounge bar. “My aunt died – she was in her late 60s but otherwise healthy – and my mum, who is recovering from cancer, was infected but survived. Many of my customers became infected or lost loved ones.”
Nationally cases rose by 19,644 on Saturday, of which 4,956 were in Lombardy, followed by Veneto, Campania and Lazio. The economic hub of Milan, about 30 miles from Bergamo, is Lombardy’s new centre, with caseloads tripling over the past week. Bergamo and other provinces in Lombardy that were hit early on in the pandemic, including Lodi, where Italy’s first locally transmitted case was detected in February, are recording among the lowest daily rates in the region.
But knowing how quickly the tide can change, people in Bergamo are absorbing news from Milan with a chilling sense of deja vu – overstretched hospitals, health workers getting sick, outbreaks in care homes. And deaths creeping up. “We’re afraid the nightmare will return,” added Remondini. “Things are calm right now, but we are so close to Milan, and the nearby regions of Piedmont and Liguria are not in great shape either.”
Lombardy was the first of Italy’s 20 regions to impose an 11pm to 5am curfew, beginning on 22 October, after scientists warned that without the measure, intensive care admissions would increase sixfold by the end of the month and general hospital admissions would quadruple.
Temporary hospitals set up in conference centres during the first wave have reopened in Milan and Bergamo, initially providing Lombardy with an additional 201 intensive care beds. Campania, in the south, and Lazio, the region surrounding Rome, imposed a similar curfew from Friday night amid rapidly increasing infections and hospital admissions.