Corona Virus in Italy
St Mark’s Square in the heart of Venice. Usually, this place is teeming with thousands of tourists gathered here. Now there’sno one. No one. A deathly hush has descended on the city with its world-famous canals. Everything is closed —for the foreseeable future. The tourists have left and Venice’sresidents are heeding the strict lockdown imposed on Italy since March 8th. Most of the time cameraman MarcoPolo and I find ourselves completely alone in the city’s maze of alleyways. Normally, the crowds here make it difficult to cross the Rialto Bridge. Now, I stand alone by the GrandCanal — the city’s main thoroughfare. We can tell from the packaging that these are boxes of medicines being unloaded here. The supply chain for the pharmacies appears to be working. They are still open. The delivery workers let us film them, but don’t want to be interviewed. We move on. The few others we come across give us a wide berth. Somehow, in this difficult situation, it doesn’t seem appropriate to confront them with a camera and a microphone.
What we’re experiencing is extraordinary… Fascinating, but a bit frightening at the same time. We’ve obtained special permits from the mayor and completed self-declaration forms required of all Italians when they travel -otherwise, we wouldn’t be allowed here. Luckily, our encounter with the carabinieri passes off without incident. We’re filming it secretly with a cellphone. Do you have a film permit? Yes, we’ve got approval from the mayor’s office. Here are the documents. The press office has also been informed. And that’s yourself-declaration form? Yes. Ok, then you can carry on … Close to the Rialto Bridge is the city’s fish market. Normally it’s packed with vendors. Now there are just a few. Many fishmongers worry about surviving economically, as sales have collapsed.
The few customers who do come here buy two or three fish, if that. The fish sellers earn their money from the restaurants and hotels that buy in bulk — but they are all closed. I haven’t experienced anything like it in the last 35 years that I’ve worked here. We have never been hit so hard —not by the floods or other catastrophes. We Venetians are tough. But we have never seen anything like this. You just don’t know how to react — and how to stay healthy. Many people lost their jobs, are at home without work. These are difficult times. We head for Bergamo in the region of Lombardy, 230 km west of Venice, an epicenter of the coronavirus in Europe.
We want to know why Covid-19 has infected and killed so many people in Lombardy. For us, too, it’s hazardous to enter this quarantined area. We decide not to take any risks. We have our disinfectant, masks, and gloves ready. At the time we filmed, in mid- to late- March, close to 10,000 people had already been admitted for treatment to a hospital in the province of Lombardy. By the first week of April, the number of reported cases in the region would reach nearly 55,000. With its population of 120,000, the city of Bergamo, along with its outlying areas, is Lombardy’s most important commercial center after Milan. Our journey takes us to the historic center of Bergamo, which is perched on a hill called Bergamo Alta. Here, too, most of the businesses and stores are closed. The alleys are deserted, as they were in Venice. There are just a few people, standing a safe distance away from one another, waiting patiently outside the pharmacy. In the Piazza Vecchia, the square at the heart of the old town, we meet Marcello Menaudi, who runs the Cafè del Tasso.
The cafe dates back to 1476. And the only time that it has had to close for such long periods was during wartime. But Marcellois an optimist. He says now the main thing is to be there for one another and pull together. We’ll open the cafe as soon as everything is over here. The entire family will do their bit, including him. And step by step we will start again. I really hope that everyone will be buoyed by this optimism, including the government. They have really done everything possible and are doing a pretty good job. PM Conte and all the others. This is an exceptional situation, very difficult. Marcello asks whether we have already had a coffee. As everywhere is closed, including motorway service stations, we gladly accept. Just off Piazza Vecchia is the terminal for the funicular railway that runs between Bergamo and Bergamo Alta. The newspaper kiosk inside is open.
Can I see the daily newspaper, please? Here you are. Are there many obituaries? Yes, unfortunately, we’ reliving with a serious threat. Are you afraid? Yes. Why are there so many deaths in Bergamo, in particular? There is no logical, official explanation… Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Bergamo is a hub for the region close to the alps and is connected to Milan. When you add one and two together, you end up caught in this vicious circle. No, no, look again. There are more pages…! Crazy. It’s a battlefield. On the northeastern outskirts of Bergamo lies the village of Casino. There’s a home for retirees here. We set off to find out how the situation is developing in such care homes. The health and care system in Lombardy, one of Italy’s richest regions, fares well in international comparison. The head of the care home EmanueleBertacchi is waiting in the courtyard.
We are not allowed to film the facility — either inside or on the outside. The situation for residents and carers is very grave. You still have some time. Beware. This is like war. Stay at home all of you. No one should be out and about. In particular, the elderly are at great risk. There have been many, many deaths. Figures are much higher than is generally known. You still have a few days‘ reprieve. But I repeat: Stay at home! The situation here is very, very serious. I don’t want to spread panic, but please get the old people into isolation, avoid any contact, because for them the situation is much worse than it seemed. Here it’s like being at war. Back in Bergamo. The city hospital is also out of bounds. In front of the building, there are huge additional oxygen tanks. The hospital’s own facility can no longer supply anywhere near enough oxygen to run the many ventilators needed for the coronavirus patients. So, this is the Papa San GiovanniHospital — named for Pope John the 23rd.
One of the biggest hospitals and really the center of the corona infections. You could almost say Europe’s coronavirus hot spot. We are not allowed to film in the hospital. We meet the director of the pediatric department, Lorenzo D’Antiga, in the foyer. We conduct the interview outside. Like the rest of the staff, Dr. D’Antiga has been working round the clock for weeks now. Many doctors and nurses have contracted the virus and are unable to work. Patients in isolation wards are also separated from their loved ones. For the devout, it’s an extremely difficult situation. Not being able to be with their loved ones in their final hours and not being able to have a funeral with a priest is a very painful experience. The virus hits old people the hardest.
The head pediatrician says that’s why care homes are in a precarious situation. Unfortunately, there are many dead here, not just in hospitals, but also elsewhere. There are many elderly people living in their own homes in the villages around Bergamo, or in the valleys in the Alpine foothills. Many are dying at the moment, and we’ reconvinced they are dying from coronavirus. But because they’re not being taken to hospital, there is no diagnosis. According to statistics, in Italy, the vast majority of deaths from Covid-19 occur in people over the age of 60. Most of them had one or several preexisting conditions. One good piece of news about the virus, says the doctor, is that children are extremely unlikely to be severely affected. Children are a particular case. The illness isn’t serious but they can get infected. That’s definitely good news for the families with small children.
But you shouldn’t forget one important aspect. Children who’ve been infected pass on the infection. It’s crucial to realize that. You can infect adults without showing any kind of symptoms yourself. It’s an almost 3h-drive from Bergamo to Bolzano. As all the hotels are shut, we can’t dally. One advantage of the lockdown is that roads are largely clear – we make good progress. Even around busy hubs like Verona, where there are usually long traffic jams. In Bolzano, the capital of the largely german-speaking province of Alto Adige, pick-ups with loudspeakers are urging people to stay inside for health reasons. A lot is being done here to stop the spread of the virus.
Overnight, the roads, pavements, and bus stops are being cleaned and decontaminated with water and hydrogen peroxide. We think it has some effect. A lot of people walk on the streets. A few spit. There are animals running around. Illnesses can get passed on like that. We think we have to reach a 0-infection point. So we want to rule out the chance that the road, the ground, is a source of infection. The cleaning liquid is said to be harmless to the environment. We also ask whether this is really meant to reassure the residents, a symbolic act. No, it’s not just about the psychological effect. Let’s be clear on this.
Citizens still have to stick to all the regulations and they shouldn’t think that the streets are clean now and the problem with the virus is solved. No way. It just makes a small contribution. Nothing more. Next day at home with our cameraman Marco. To hear from the doctor in Lombardy that his 3 sons are not at acute risk from the virus is reassuring. The boys are working on exercises that their school has sent via email. Some work can also be done on the computer — together with mother, Silvia. Since the lockdown, Silvia has spent most of her time at home with the boys.
As a software programmer, she also has to work from home. Recently, the Italian government tightened up the lockdown, banning walks outside. Anyone violating those rules faces a fine of? 2,000 and criminal charges. From time to time, the Polo family sits outside the house at the entrance to their small garden, just for a change of scene. At home, I’m not scared at all. But I would be if I were in the city. I hold my breath when people walk past and then breathe out when they’ve passed by. I am fed up with this virus. I want to go back to kindergarten. Every day without fail the family sits down together to watch the evening news on TV. The statistics in Alto Adigealso paint a worrying picture.
In the next 2 weeks, the family will learn that the number of infected has more than doubled, with more than 4x the number of deaths. The economic situation is also dramatic. Some 7,600 businesses have been forced to close in the northern Italian province. In Vipiteno — shortly before the BrennerPass — one company has been able to avoid having to put their employees on reduced hours or give them notice. Peter Trenkwalder and his team came up with a new business idea overnight. The team of 20 now constructs protective shields from plexiglass and metal. As these products are intended to protect people from the new coronavirus, hygiene is being taken very seriously. At first, it wasn’t clear whether the product would sell. No, we’re not giving up. We are making these protective panels and going from door to door with them. Many banks and stores have snapped them up. We have seen that many people need them. We switched production from one day to the next. We have posted our product on social media and seen that there is a demand.
In the meantime, the production hall has been almost totally refitted, with new machines and materials. It’s a mammoth task, and a real achievement. Of course, it’s a big change. And we are really pushing the envelope. But we are a great team. We’re sticking to the rules, we have protective suits and I hope that this crisis will be over at some point. And if all the others out there stick together like we have then they will also survive this crisis. There are enough orders to keep the company busy for the next few weeks and the jobs here are secure, for the time being at least. It was 1/3 luck, 1/3 team effort, and 1/3 the absolute will to survive. That’s what motivated us. That’s what made the difference. 5 days ago, the business was completely different.
A classic small blue-collar firm, warts and all. Today we are talking about hygiene, risk management. There is a plan that lists what people have to do and when. One has to provide food, the other the supply of materials. Each is concentrating on their role. Nothing else. The tourist resort of Tirolo perched above the spa town of Merano is also deserted. Right next to the village‘s care home is GP Eugen Slater’s practice. First of all, he provides us with fresh face masks and stresses just how important protective measures are for staff in health care sectors working with old people. When I arrive at the practice, I try to put on a new set of clothes. I change here. When I get home, I again change out of the clothes that I only wore for traveling between work and home. I take off my shoes outside the door. I try to keep to the highest standards of hygiene to keep external contact down to a minimum, for those at home and for my patients.
Dr. Sleiter takes us on a tour to show us the situation in the care home in Tirolo. Safety measures are strict with additional restrictions of movement within the home. We have closed all the communal rooms and stopped all group activities. We have tried to isolate each floor. So if we did have someone who tests positive, the other floors would be in quarantine and protected. We are now in the communal rooms. It’s empty. The residents are all on the floors above us. Normally, this is a happy place with people playing cards and eating coffee and cake. Carers organizing games. Yes, this is unfortunately the sad reality. The next day, outside the main hospital in Bolzano. Here there are also special measures in place. In the control tent in front of the building, everyone entering the hospital first tested for the coronavirus. Right by the side of that is the regions Italian White Cross control center.
The relief organization has set up its own task force for the transport of people infected with COVID 19. Before we go to speak to the Whitecross and ask the volunteers how things are with their ambulance services, the doctor told us to put on gloves. The head of the coronavirus task force in Bolzano is Laura Padovan. She has been employed by the White Cross for 11 years. She says that she has never experienced a situation like this. Unfortunately, we have been picking up a lot of patients who although they can still walk and breathe on their own in the morning, by the evening we have to rush them to an ICU. In the afternoon we get a message from a doctor in Bergamo. He says the situation has deteriorated over the last few days.
We carry out our interview by Skype, to avoid any possibility of infection. Like Dr. D’Antiga, Dr. Lorenzo Norsa also works at Papa Giovanni Hospital in Bergamo. I think the message that goes for us all, for the whole of Europe is: All of us — we doctors, too — need to keep our distance from our families. If everyone Europe does that, then — at some point — this will be over. And then we’ll have a lot of time again to spend together and to hug each other just like we did in the past. But for now, we must stay at home — in self-isolation. That’s the only option we have to stop the spread of the virus in Europe. Optimism and solidarity are important now, even if an end to the crisis isn’t in sight. While the curve of new infections appears to be flattening out, it’s still unclear when the country will be able to return to normality. When I first saw the photo on social media, I thought it was a fake. But it’s true the water is a lot clearer than usual. And you don’t hear a sound either. It’s almost eerie. Now and then you hear a child crying, but nothing apart from that. Unbelievable. If something positive has come out of this, then it’s cleaner water in Venice’s canals. Who knows, maybe Venetians will miss the peace and quiet — when all of this is over.
Corona Virus in Italy