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NA Reports – Bergamo, March 2020: The Heart of the Italian Outbreak

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020

Roberto Lusardi, University of Bergamo, Italy
Stefano Tomelleri, Vice-President of the Italian Sociological Association (AIS)

We are living in very unexpected and frightening times. Our generation, born in the 1970s, did not go to war and did not experience famine. Fortunately. Of course, we had some anguished moments: 11 September 2001, the 2008 economic crisis, terrorism and ISIS, the earthquakes in Central Italy in 2016 and 2017, to name a few. But the current situation is peculiar, in terms of the entity (planetary), the modality (social isolation), and the duration (still indefinite) of the crisis. It seems that the juggernaut of modernity, in which we grew up and in which we have always trusted, has suddenly slowed down [1]. The certainties placed in neoliberalism, in the economic system, and in the lifestyles it inspired, are rapidly collapsing. Profit, efficiency, control, speed and innovation, the keywords of that economic and cultural model, seem almost incomprehensible in the current condition of social isolation and economic lockdown that more and more nations are facing.

We in Bergamo, in the productive and rich region of Lombardy, the economic heart of Italy, were amongst the first to realise the uniqueness of this event. The daily frenzy of one of the most dynamic and cosmopolitan Italian provinces came to an abrupt stop almost a month ago, to everyone's disbelief. Non-essential production and commercial activities have been shut down. But, how do you say what is essential and what is not in this situation? Institutions and people continue to ask themselves this question, as the number of contagious cases increases, and as restrictions become more stringent. Churches, schools, universities, public buildings, bars, cinemas, most stores and many post offices are closed (and only two people at a time can enter those that are open). People wait in long queues for over an hour to shop in supermarkets, and there is only one topic of conversation: the virus and its spread. Once inside, it is very common to discover a huge empty space on the shelf where denatured alcohol or disinfectants would normally be found. Everyone is trying to protect themselves and their relatives from the virus, so whoever gets there first stocks up. Just a few supermarkets have recently limited purchases of the most critical products. Flour is still an essential good, apparently.

The hedonistic and consumerist lifestyle of neoliberal society, which Bauman depicted with plastic images, evocative of ‘touch and go’ experiences and social lightness, has revealed all its ephemeral and superficial characteristics [2]. The shopping malls, those cathedrals of consumption, are now empty, and citizens are rediscovering neighbourhood shops and agricultural chains that are supporting socially isolated citizens, especially the elderly, by providing home delivery services.

The Caravaggio Airport at Orio al Serio (BG) is usually one of the busiest in Europe. More than 13 million people passed through it in 2019. It has recently experienced daily traffic reductions from 30% to 60% due to flight cancellations. Even private vehicles are falling in number, and public transportation is operating with limited services to limit the contagion. Personal freedom has also been limited to an exceptional degree: people’s movements are only possible within the same municipality and for well-defined and justified reasons (mostly work or shopping for groceries). Police checks are frequent and rigorous.

On the city streets you do not meet anyone, just a few solitary strollers with their dogs or someone heading to the pharmacy or supermarket. The historic centre of the city (the upper city), the favourite entertainment destination for Bergamo residents, is usually crowded with tourists, but it now presents a surreal and desolate scenario, as the mayor of the city, Giorgio Gori, personally observed during a lonely and painful site inspection (Image 1).

Image 1 – The Bergamo mayor Giorgio Gori visiting the upper city (source: Eco di Bergamo)
Image 1 – The Bergamo mayor Giorgio Gori visiting the upper city (source: Eco di Bergamo)

People accustomed to enduring the stress of speed, mobility and efficiency on a daily basis are now trapped in their homes. Family life for thousands of people was turned upside down in a matter of days: they are now forced to be together for longer than they have been in recent years (pedagogues and psychologists have appreciated this, although those working in services dealing with domestic violence are already apprehensive). The walls of the home (or the garden gates for the more fortunate) border a space in which parents and children might re-establish relationships too often sacrificed in the whirl of pre-lockdown life, and in which partners can experience a deeper and unexpected intimacy. On the other hand, these walls and gates can be insurmountable, prohibiting the execution of strategies for easing the usual tension between conflicting couples and children who are in permanent revolution. To this tension is added the tension of the age.

People are spending hours talking on the phone with family and friends who live just a few steps from them; they cannot meet for fear of infection. Digital technologies (in particular, WhatsApp, Zoom and Instagram) help in maintaining social interaction, as everyone tries to adapt to the new state of isolation. Smart working and teleworking have been much discussed in recent decades without having any real impact, but they are suddenly the only possible modus operandi for many companies and institutions, schools and universities.

The city is particularly quiet in the evening. The usual background noise of urban traffic is absent. The only sound that cuts through the night is that of sirens, as the ambulances make their way to the main city hospital, the Papa Giovanni XXIII. The efforts that healthcare institutions and personnel are making in this period are extraordinary: 300 hospital beds out of 900 – including 70% of those in the ICU – are occupied by Covid-19 patients. Staff are foregoing their breaks to ensure continuity of care; doctors and nurses are being recruited from all parts of Italy, and from other nations; and helicopters are transferring patients to other national and European hospitals.

At the time of writing, more than 14,000 people have died from the virus in the Lombardy region, the highest rate in all of Italy. Only in the city of Bergamo, in March there were 6230 deaths, five times (567.6%) more than the average for the same period in the years 2015-2019 [3]. The local newspaper, Eco di Bergamo, normally contains two pages of obituaries; now it has ten. Practically every family has been touched in some way by the virus.

The reference point for the entire population is the National Civil Protection evening bulletin (available on all TV channels, and on all the main social networks), which provides daily updates on the trends in the pandemic. People follow the news on the number of infections and deaths with concern, as they wait for social containment measures – those daily efforts required of each individual – to take effect.

One photograph in particular captured the extent of the drama that has hit this area, and the atmosphere that currently reigns. It shows a long procession of trucks of the Italian Army moving through the streets of the city on the night of March the 19th (Image 2). When the young Emanuele, who posted the image on social media, saw the column, his first thought was positive: "Reinforcements are arriving for the setting up of the field hospital in the exhibition halls!". Unfortunately, the army had been called to transport hundreds of coffins of Covid-19 victims to other cities in northern Italy, because the Bergamo cemeteries were full as a result of the increased mortality rates amongst the local population. The photo made a strong impression on the city and the rest of the country, evoking the most tragic imaginings of the war – of retreat, defeat and death.

Image 2 – Italian Army trucks carrying coffins (source: Eco di Bergamo)
Image 2 – Italian Army trucks carrying coffins (source: Eco di Bergamo)

We opened this short report with the metaphorical image of the broken-down juggernaut of modernity, and we close it with the column of Italian army trucks. In observing and experiencing this landscape, we see the socio-economic infrastructure of modernity, and its design for rational planning and the control of uncertainty, crumbling in front of the unpredictability of history, which has begun to run again a few months ago [4]. The suffering and fear contained within the second photograph contrast sharply with the placing of unconditional trust in techno-scientific innovation and in the neoliberal economic model of late modernity. But we also see that where there is a deep crisis, there is always the possibility of change and renovation. We hope that we will be able to get the renewal opportunities that this dramatic rift in our history is giving us.

[1] Giddens, A. (1990). The consequences of modernity. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
[2] Bauman, Z. (2001). The individualized society. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.
[3] ISTAT (2020). Impatto dell’epidemia COVID-19 sulla mortalità totale della popolazione residente primo trimestre 2020. Istituto Nazionale di Statistica. Available at, retrieved May 5, 2020.
[4] Fukuyama, F. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press, New York, NY.

1 – source: Eco di Bergamo
2 – source: Eco di Bergamo

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