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Friday, July 03, 2020

How Bergamo is picking up the pieces

As football returns to Italian city worst hit by the pandemic, a citizens’ group is helping people share grief and holding authorities accountable

Written by Nihal Koshie | New Delhi | Updated: June 25, 2020 1:49:35 pm
Bereaved petitioners outside the prosecutor’s office in Bergamo, Lombardy. (Pics forwarded by Stefano Fusco)

When Bergamo-based Atalanta played their home game against Sassuolo behind closed doors on Sunday evening, it marked a winning return for the football club from the epicentre of Covid-19 in Italy’s Lombardy region. Stefano Fusco, the founder of citizens’ group Noi Denunceremo, which translates to ‘We will report’, for bereaved relatives, didn’t turn on the television to watch the team’s first game in nearly four months.

The 31-year-old went to his best friend’s house to catch up over dinner. He admits not being an Atalanta loyalist and roots for Inter Milan. Fusco didn’t tune in to see his favourite club beat Sampdoria either.

Every second family in Bergamo, which registered over 3,000 deaths, has lost someone to the pandemic. Fusco prioritising time with a close friend over watching a football game was understandable. “I hadn’t met my friend for months, so it was good to have got some time with him,” Fusco says. Of course, he knows Inter won 2-1. Football isn’t a priority for this sales consultant involved in helping people get legal help to petition officials to highlight government negligence.

The spread of the virus in Bergamo is linked to an Atalanta game.

Fans returning after a Champions League match against Valencia at the San Siro in Milan on February 19 are believed to have been carriers. A third of the town of 1.2 lakh residents were reported to have gone to the game where there was no social distancing. Four days later, the first positive case was reported in Bergamo. It took a fortnight for the lockdown to be enforced in the town.

Stefano Fusco (R) with his late grandfather Antonio (Centre) and father Luca in happier times.

Over 13,500 people tested positive and the match is now called ‘Game Zero’. Health experts have referred to it as a ‘biological bomb’. Shortly after his grandfather Antonio tested positive for the coronavirus and died within two days of developing a fever and cough in mid-March, Fusco and his family launched Noi Denunceremo. His father, sister, mother and aunt were the first members. People started joining in droves, within a day the community grew to 5,000 and currently there are 60,000. Earlier this month, 50 people filed petitions at the prosecutor’s office in Bergamo and another 220 in different parts of Italy. Top lawyers are working pro bono for members of the Facebook group and prosecutors have questioned the country’s prime minister.

The pandemic curve has dipped in Bergamo, yet Fusco believes it is too early for football to return even behind closed doors.
“Well, I disagree with restarting the championships. Football in Italy is not a sport, it is a mix of drugs and a religion. People get very emotional when they speak about football. I am afraid people who weren’t touched by the virus can forget very quickly what happened here. The club is playing really well this year. People will start hugging, partying together, drinking beer from the same bottle. I am Italian but I don’t trust Italians. I know it would be a very big danger for all of us,” Fusco tells The Indian Express, worrying about the possibility of social distancing going out of the window at bars and restaurants which are now open.

Sunday’s win is being projected as a succour to help people in Bergamo overcome the pain caused by the pandemic.

Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini, who had himself tested positive for coronavirus, spoke about football’s ability to give joy to the people. “It’s nice to say that we’re back and we have restarted from where we were stopped,” Gasperini was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “It’s obvious that some things will never be deleted. But football, which is entertainment and an incredible passion, can help people rejoice again. Our biggest satisfaction will be when fans can return to the stadium because playing in these conditions is really a shame,” the coach said on Sunday.

The entry of spectators at the Gewiss Stadium, Fusco feels, should not be allowed right away. If he had his say, the Serie A would have restarted only next year.

Players observe a minute’s silence as Atalanta played their first match in Bergamo, the epicentre of the pandemic in Italy. (Source: AP)

“There were 30,000 or more people from Bergamo at the stadium that night,” he says referring back to ‘Game Zero’. “We were already in a pandemic emergency situation since January 31. I don’t support Atalanta so I didn’t go to the stadium but a friend who went there knew two guys who died because of Covid 19,” Fusco says.

Haunting memories are too fresh for people in Bergamo to move on without a shudder when thinking about the horrors of the past few months. Fusco, who lives in the countryside, narrates a story about ambulance sirens when the pandemic was at its peak and coffins were being stored in churches around Bergamo because the only cemetery was full.

Counting sirens

“I am still finding a way to describe it. It was like being in the middle of the war and your enemy is bombing you and you don’t know where the next bomb will fall. In a normal situation, I hear the ambulance once in three days and during the peak of the pandemic, I counted up to 128 ambulances in one day, and every time you went out, for food, for example, you discovered somebody you knew was dead or in hospital,” he says.

His octogenarian grandfather Antonio was an accountant and was healthy enough to drive twice a week to the firm he had set up and passed onto his son Luca, Fusco’s father. Antonio was admitted at a hospital following a stroke when he was infected by the virus. His body was taken in a car of a funeral home and cremated away from Bergamo because of a shortage of space. His ashes are kept at Luca’s home.

“We created a virtual community where all of our family and friends and relatives could join and share stories about grandpa. Other people joined too and it was like a virtual meeting room where everybody was free to share the pain and tell the story.”

Noi Denunceremo’s core team consists of 12 members, nine of whom are lawyers from across Italy, including Turin, Naples, Rome and Florence. Complaints and petitions are first filed online before people detail experiences around the death of a family member, in order to give officials as much information as possible.

The objective of the citizens’ group is not to point fingers at doctors or hospitals, but ask authorities to investigate what led to the pandemic spiralling out of hand. The next date for hearing petitioners is likely to be July 6 and over a thousand testimonies have been compiled.

Delay in lockdown

Fusco explains why many people believe authorities didn’t react fast enough.

“The first case in Bergamo was on February 23 but the town was locked down only on March 8. That is two weeks later,” Fusco says.

The nearby town of Codogno in Lodi province was quick to act and a lockdown was imposed on the same day the first case was detected on February 21. “There is a lot of anger around in Bergamo and also in Italy, and the public opinion is that our authorities and our government didn’t do too much to contain the virus, especially in places like Bergamo. For two weeks, people were free to move around without social distancing and without masks and that is probably the cause of the pandemic we had here.”

Italy has seen a steady decline in cases and the number of deaths has fallen to two digits daily signalling a turnaround in the battle against Covid-19. In Bergamo, life is getting back to normal with shops opening and people heading back to work and so is Fusco. “Basically life has restarted, but people here are still scared because lots of people have lost family members.”

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