Ambulance Sirens and Death Bells: Agony in Italy’s Disaster Zone

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – “I can’t look at all the deaths in the newspapers. I can’t do it,” he tells me in a weakened voice over the telephone from his home in Gazzaniga, a small town in the Val Seriana near Bergamo and now at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

As he talks, he pauses. “Right now, an ambulance siren is passing,” says Romano Ruggeri, a 61-year-old skipper on sailboats in the Mediterranean Sea now stuck in his disease-ravaged hinterland hometown at the feet of the mountains of Lombardy.

Medical staffers wearing protective gear, part of a special unit performing house calls, walk in Bergamo, northern Italy, on Wednesday. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

He’s silent for a moment, listening to hear what direction the ambulance is headed. He can take the pulse of this deadly virus – and how many lives of his townsfolk it’s stealing – by knowing where ambulances are going or coming from.

The sound of sirens and church bells tolling for the dead: For weeks, that’s what the inhabitants of the Val Seriana and towns in the expanses of the Po River flats have been tormented by.

“In my town, there are eight or nine deaths each day,” he tells me. I can’t believe my ears. I ask him again to make sure I heard correctly.

“Yes, eight or nine people die each day,” he says. “When someone dies, the person is immediately put into a coffin and taken to the cemetery. There is a long line of coffins waiting to be cremated.”

It’s not known – and likely will never be known – how many people this virus has killed and will kill in his valley or in most places around the planet. That’s because so many are dying in their homes and placed in coffins without being tested for the virus. The victims – mostly older men – are dying quickly, often alone in a room under quarantine and with little or no ceremony.

Official data shows the virus has killed 1,267 people in Bergamo, the most of any Italian province, and infected 6,728 people. But these numbers are only a shadow of the real toll, local officials and residents say. In a way, they can be seen as a lonely tombstone atop a mass grave.

A local newspaper, L’Eco di Bergamo, reported recently that numerous town mayors say official death tolls are inaccurate.

“In our case, the official records say coronavirus has caused nine deaths,” Cristian Vezzoli, the mayor of Seriate, told the newspaper. “But since the beginning of the month our official records show about 60 deaths.”

Other town mayors in the 14 miles between Seriate and Gazzaniga say the same. In Alzano Lombardo, about 62 people have died since Feb. 23, compared to nine last year in the same period. In Nembro, about 115 people have died this month compared to 14 last year in a comparable period.

“If you talk with the mayors and priests, they will tell you the number of deaths are five or 10 times as many as officially reported,” Ruggeri says. “If you take the local newspaper, L’Eco di Bergamo, a year ago, there were two pages of obituaries. Recently, there were 23 pages of obituaries.”

Gazzaniga has about 6,000 residents and Ruggeri says he knows many of the people struck down in his town by this mysterious and awful coronavirus known as Covid-19

How many of the dead does he know? “Thirty,” he says. “There are also people who have died who I will probably not know are gone for another year.”

Besides the dead, there are the sick. He has two sick cousins, one in a hospital, and good friends who are seriously sick and in hospitals.

“People are dying here who until yesterday were doing great, they didn’t have any problems,” he says. “They are dying for no particular reason except Covid. This is more than an influenza. We can’t pretend otherwise, close our eyes.”

Medical staffers work in Bergamo, northern Italy, on Wednesday. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

He continues: “One might say it is natural selection, but there are lots of people who are young who get sick. It’s also hitting people who are healthy. This is not an influenza that’s just a little bit worse than others. No, this is something else.”

He coughs. It’s a shallow, persistent cough. Dry. A sure sign of the virus’ attack on a body.

“I likely got it,” he says about the virus. “Maybe, we think that we all have it.”

He says he got a slight fever, what seemed like a cold and a cough about 24 days ago. Since then, he’s not left his home for fear of both infecting others and getting sick.

“I still have trouble with my sense of taste and smell, which they say are symptoms of Covid-19,” he says. Like many people here, he was not tested and he does not know if he has been infected with the virus.

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In this part of northern Italy, where winters are long and dark even in the best of years, hundreds of thousands of people like Ruggeri live in a world now defined by fear, sickness and death.

“The only things you hear are the ambulances passing and the church bells,” a 59-year-old friend of my father’s tells me over the telephone.

He’s in a small town called Barbariga in the plains of Brescia, the second-worst hit province in Italy.

He’s not left his home for more than two weeks. He recently discovered he was born with a heart defect and suffered a heart attack shortly before the coronavirus outbreak struck. He was supposed to undergo heart surgery, but that procedure has been put off. The hospitals are full of Covid-19 patients.

In his condition, contact with the outside world could be lethal, he says. His brother lives in a house attached to his, but they talk by telephone now. A neighbor living only 65 feet away is infected and sick. His wife ventures out once a week to get food.

Officially, 15 people have died in Barbariga, he says. But he believes the number of deaths is much higher.

“I knew them all,” he says of the victims in his town of 2,500 inhabitants. “So many people have died here. Because it’s a small town, everyone knows each other.”

With sadness and disbelief in his voice, he tells me about four friends who went to Milan to visit another friend in a hospital.

Shortly afterward, all four fell sick. One of them, a strapping giant of a man in his late 60s who seemed invincible, died a few days ago, he says.

“Three ambulances showed up here the other day,” he says.

He stands at his window. It’s an empty world outside. “It’s surreal. No one goes around,” he says.

“People continue dying,” he says. “We don’t know when it will end. They keep saying the peak [of deaths] will come, but then it goes on. I think this will be a very long thing.”

Death has become so common – so ubiquitous – that now “everyone looks out for himself,” he says. “You are indifferent. You think: ‘It killed him, it didn’t kill me.’”

This isn’t the way it should be, he says. It’s hard to even feel grief, he says.

A volunteer nurse wearing a mask tends to a homeless man in Milan on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

“It’s like what my grandparents told me about the Spanish flu,” he says. “Hundreds, millions died. It’s something like that. They told me about this, how people just died a hundred years ago.”

The Po Valley, also known as the Paduan Plain, the Pianura Padana in Italian, is one of world’s most densely populated spaces and today one of its richest. Once known for its rich pastures and fields and farming culture, since the 1980s it has witnessed phenomenal growth as factories of all kinds have sprouted up.

It wasn’t, therefore, an easy decision to shut society down, close factories and tell this hard-working region to stay indoors. Many politicians, both local and national ones, were hesitant to call for a lockdown and many factories remain open.

Now, more than a month after Italy became aware of its devastating epidemic, the number of infections continues to grow by the hundreds even in Bergamo and Brescia, where the most severe lockdowns have long been in effect.

“If the numbers are going up, this means there are people who are healthy but who are carriers,” the family friend says, upset that factories are still running and putting people at risk.

Reluctance to close everything down to keep the economy humming is what makes him angry, he says. He calls British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Donald Trump “idiots” for wanting to keep people working despite warnings that doing so will endanger lives.

“They need to close everything, you have to close down everything. The economy is gone at this point. You can’t just be concerned about the economy,” he says.

For him, Barbariga and the rest of the Po Valley have been deeply harmed by the industrialization, the accumulation of wealth and the loss of a simpler farmer’s way of life.

Some Italian scientists are even suggesting the high levels of pollution and bad air quality of the Po Plain and Wuhan, China, may have contributed to the severity of the disease’s outbreaks in both places.

He, too, is beginning to wonder if there is a connection, he says.

“This was already a shitty place because of all the pollution, people die because of pollution,” he says. “Now, why the hell did [the outbreak] have to happen here?”

He keeps returning to the thing no one wants to think or talk about: the virus.

“People don’t want to talk about it, even if that’s all people talk about,” he says.

Like so many others now, he has many tragedies to recount.

There’s the story of a 54-year-old friend who picked up the virus when she went to a hospital for dialysis. She died the other day. On a digital device, she waved goodbye to her husband. She couldn’t tell him goodbye. She was on a respirator. “She had no words,” he says.

As the deaths mount in the outside world, he and his wife are prisoners in their home.

“We’re going out of our minds,” he says. “There are lots of days when you don’t know what to do in the house. You clean, you watch TV, but then you get fed up.”

“Now you’ll go crazy if you don’t get sick from that thing,” he says. “I keep going around the house like an animal.”

He pauses. He looks out the window.

“Ambulances and bells, that’s it,” he repeats.

A truck sprays disinfectant as a preventive measure against the spread of the new coronavirus in Rome on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

The image of Italians trying to raise spirits by singing and playing musical instruments on balconies comes to his mind.

“No one sings on balconies here,” he muses. “I don’t think it’s the moment to go out and sing. There’s no reason to sing.”

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Back in Gazzaniga, Ruggeri and his girlfriend also do what they can to get through the long days.

“I spend a lot of my day sending messages to friends,” he says. “I talk with a lot of friends, many who are sick. I try to help people, give them encouragement.”

Other than that, he’s keeping a diary and does some wood working. His girlfriend cooks and cleans. “We could eat off the floor she’s cleaned the house so well,” he jokes.

Home is the safe place, he says.

“The advice I can give anyone, the best thing to do is to stay home,” he says.

He talked with a friend who works as a cook in the United States. To his friend’s dismay, the Atlanta restaurant stayed open despite the growing threat from the virus.

“We must limit this contagion that is killing all these people,” Ruggeri says.

Is the end of this nightmare near? He’s not sure. The ambulances are providing clues.

“Listening to the TV, it seems the trend in Lombardy is that there is a slowing of the number of infected,” he says. “We hope to see a slowing.”

He turns for evidence to the ambulances and sirens he hears.

“In the first few days, we didn’t hear the ambulances constantly; and then they were constant; and now we hear them less,” he says.

But he’s suspicious. What if the ambulances are going about the grisly business of picking up the sick without a sound?

“Maybe they have decided to use the sirens less,” he muses. “Maybe they figured that it was disconcerting for people to hear the sirens all day long.”

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Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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