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Italy was hit hard by COVID-19 early in the pandemic. Now, prosecutors have begun an investigation into whether the failure to lock down two towns near the northern city of Bergamo contributed to thousands of deaths related to the disease. The campaign for justice, led by bereaved relatives, has quickly ensnared Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.
As Italy emerges from the horrors of COVID-19, there are investigations into whether the failure to lock down two northern Italy towns early enough led to thousands of deaths.
From Bergamo in Northern Italy, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.
The bereaved converged on the prosecutor's office in Bergamo to demand a criminal investigation.
They believe two towns in this key industrial region should have been locked down in the last 10 days of February, when COVID-19 first erupted. But they weren't fully quarantined until March the 8th, along with the rest of Italy.
The campaigners accuse officials of prioritizing the Italian economy, and allege that the two-week delay fueled the fatal contagion.
We want to achieve truth and justice. First, we want to achieve the truth. We want to know exactly what happened here, why the virus spread all over the world, but only here in Bergamo and Brescia did such a huge massacre.
Stefano Fusco is helping orchestrate the We Will Denounce movement. His grandfather, Antonio, was one of the victims.
If the magistrate will find that there is someone in the chain of power, at the high level of authority who had some responsibility, and he did something wrong, we want him to respond to his action in front of a judge.
This city, Bergamo, was the hardest hit in the whole of Italy. According to official statistics, there were 6,000 people who died in the area administered by Bergamo.
But campaigners here believe the real figure is even higher, possibly 10,000, the numbers swollen by those people who died without being tested and those who died alone at home.
This is one of the defining images of Northern Italy's COVID nightmare, a convoy of army trucks bearing the coffins of Bergamo's dead at the height of the crisis in March. The death rate in Bergamo province was 6.5 times that of New York state.
Across Italy as a whole, nearly 35,000 have been killed by COVID. But this is no longer the most deadly country in Europe. In terms of deaths per million, Belgium is.
Lawyer Consuelo Locati is haunted by the losses in Bergamo, especially that of her father, Vincenzo. She says the case against the authorities is strengthened by the Italian constitution.
Consuelo Locati (through translator):
Article 32 stipulates that those in power have a duty to protect the health and well-being of the population. And, in reality, we believe this has been violated.
The Bergamo prosecutor is treating this case with the utmost gravity. Within days of the first complaints being filed, she went to Rome to interview the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, for three hours.
"I'm not at all worried," he said, "and that's not out of arrogance or complacency."
In Codogno, 60 miles south of Bergamo, fresh death notices are a magnet for passersby. This town of 16,000 was the first in Italy to be sealed off, on the 21st of February, because this is where the first case was identified.
Luciano Piovani was among more than 260 citizens to succumb. The only consolation was that, unlike those before him, he was able to have a proper funeral. Social distancing rules were ignored, and there were only cursory health precautions.
Father Iginio Passerini (through translator):
I have reflected a lot. It was as if God was testing us, so we should understand what is essential in life.
Father Iginio Passerini has been overwhelmed by the number of lonely funerals he's conducted in a few short weeks.
Let's hope that the virus is not going to come back, because it's really terrible. The people who've been directly affected by the virus have been deeply scarred, and it's going to take a long time to heal.
Among the mourners was 80-year-old Francesco Zucchi, who, against the odds, survived COVID-19.
Franceso Zucchi (through translator):
I have lost relatives, a nephew and brother-in-law, many friends of my age, like me, 80 years old. They have all gone. And I knew them all, 20, 30, friends, acquaintances, all.
If you go to the cemetery in Codogno, you can see them all in the highest spots. I don't know how I have made it through. I'm like a cat. This was my sixth life. A seventh will be the end of me.
Codogno is taking its first tentative steps back to normality with its traditional market. Everyone is supposed to wear a mask.
Among those trying to generate income lost during lockdown were some Chinese traders. They declined to talk. Reviving the local economy and restoring public confidence is the priority of Mayor Francesco Passerini.
The Italian government has pledged more than $50 billion in emergency aid for the whole country, but the money has yet to filter down.
Francesco Passerini (through translator):
We are waiting for resources that have been promised, but haven't arrived yet. Let's hope that everyone plays their part, because, otherwise, we could be in trouble. If the European Union exists, this is the time to prove it.
Manon Beland (through translator):
People are still worried and hurt. And I think it's going to take a long time for us to recover. I don't see a very lively summer ahead of us.
French Canadian Manon Beland and her Italian husband own what was a successful American-themed restaurant in Codogno, before disaster struck, but now they're considering selling because of the town's stigma.
We have been crushed by a recession. We still have that message, it may return, be careful, be careful. If you have been told, oh, Codogno, Codogno, Codogno is the first town, the first case, people are going to — it's just — they think about it.
Outside a private laboratory doing tests for the virus, that nervousness was tangible, and with some justification.
In Lombardy, Italy's economic engine, which includes the key city of Milan, after dipping for a while, the infection and death rates have started to pick up again.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Codogno.
So many sadnesses.
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Malcolm Brabant is a special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour.
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