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.
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.”