In Italian town Bergamo, memory of coffin-filled trucks at height of Covid-19 pandemic still haunts

Italian army trucks transporting coffins of victims of the coronavirus cross the city of Bergamo, Lombardy, on March 26, 2020.
Italian army trucks transporting coffins of victims of the coronavirus cross the city of Bergamo, Lombardy, on March 26, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

BERGAMO, Italy (AFP) - Images of army trucks transporting piled-up coffins out of the Italian town of Bergamo last year provided a shocking testament to the horrors of the coronavirus. One year on, the memories are still raw.

At the height of the pandemic last year, Father Marco Bergamelli was blessing coffins every ten minutes in this city in Italy's north.

"This place was full of coffins, there were 132 lined up at the foot of the altar," he said, opening the doors of the church at the Monumental cemetery to AFP.

"At the beginning, the trucks came at night, nobody was supposed to know the coffins were being taken elsewhere."

The camouflaged vehicles took away up to 70 coffins a day from the church, where they were collected after the local mortuaries filled up. The coffins were transported to cemeteries in other northern cities such as Bologna and Ferrara.

Many of the bodies that remained in Bergamo were buried in haste, often without headstones but with signs bearing photos and names of the deceased.

Almost everyone here lost a member of their family, a friend, colleague or neighbour.

ICU full again

Last March alone, 670 people died in this city of 120,000 inhabitants and almost 6,000 in the province of the same name - five or six times the normal toll for that time of the year.

"People saw their loved ones leave in an ambulance with a fever, and they were returned as ashes in an urn, without ever being able to say goodbye," said Mr Bergamelli, 66.

"It was like wartime."

Prime Minister Mario Draghi will visit Bergamo on Thursday to pay tribute to the victims of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 100,000 people in Italy, according to official statistics.

But a grim sense of deja vu pervades the area, as the city is once again locked down along with most of the country amid a fresh wave of infections.

At the Seriate hospital east of the city, the intensive care unit is once again at capacity, its eight beds occupied by coronavirus patients, even if numbers are lower than last year.

"Covid is more aggressive now, with many cases of the new English variant," said Dr Roberto Keim, the unit's director.

Italian army trucks are parked inside the Monumental Cemetery waiting to load coffins of victims of the coronavirus in Bergamo, Lombardy, on March 26, 2020. PHOTO: AFP


There are many here who criticise the authorities for acting too slowly to recognise the scale of the crisis last year and not imposing swift restrictions to stem the virus' spread, including banning gatherings.

"At the beginning of March, we saw people going to funerals for victims of Covid, and themselves dying a few weeks later," said Ms Roberta Caprini of the Generli Funeral Home.

The 38-year-old was left to manage unprecedented demand for the family business after her father and uncle both contracted the coronavirus. They later recovered.

"Normally, we organise about 1,400 burials a year. But in March 2020, we did 1,000," she said.

To allow relatives in quarantine to say their final goodbyes, Ms Caprini had the hearse pass underneath their balconies, and took photos of the dead herself.

But proper mourning was impossible for many.

Father Marco Bergamelli indicating where the coffins of the deceased were stored in the church in March 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, on March 15, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

"We spent a month not knowing where my father's body was," said Mr Luca Fusco, recalling the 85-year-old's death in a care home on March 11, 2020.

Mr Fusco's son Stefano created a Facebook group demanding justice for the dead, which now has 70,000 members.

The group "Noi Denunceremo" (We Will Denounce), led by Mr Luca Fusco, has already filed more than 250 complaints with prosecutors over the way the authorities handled the Covid-19 crisis. A judicial inquiry is under way.

It took two weeks after the first cases appeared in the province on Feb 23 last year for the authorities to lock down the entire Lombardy region, a measure extended one day later to the whole of Italy.

Mr Fusco claims nobody wanted to shut down a region that is the engine of Italy's economy.

"The people of Bergamo felt abandoned. In acting sooner, the authorities could have saved thousands of lives," he said.