History risks repeating itself in Italy’s Nembro: once ravaged by the plague of 1630, the small town is today in the grip of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.
On 7 March in Nembro, the death bells stopped tolling.
The small town of Nembro, with its 11,500 residents and numerous churches, all under a single parish, is tended by five priests. Four were taken ill, only one was left standing, the youngest: Don Matteo, 40 years old, originally from San Pellegrino Terme.
“We decided not to ring them anymore since that Saturday, the day of the four funerals,” he explains. “It would have meant that the whole day would be filled with the sound of the death knell, and this would have caused untold anguish for the entire community. We thought it was best to just let things be.”
Nembro, a small village east of Bergamo in Italy’s Lombardy region – gateway to the Seriana Valley and where Luna Rossa sailboat hull was built – risks going from being a headline to going down in history as the town with the highest percentage of victims in this epidemic.
History has a tendency to repeat itself – the 1630 plague wiped out nearly three quarters of the town’s 2,700 inhabitants; only 744 lived to tell the tale.
Last year 120 people died in Nembro, ten a month; now seventy have died in the space of just twelve days.
I went in search of the parish priest, but I found his assistant, the curate, Don Matteo Cella, who usually tends to the younger members of the flock; he gives me an account of the recent terrible events:
“From the beginning of the epidemic, according to the parish statistics, we held 39 funerals in the church, 26 at the cemetery, and we have 26 deceased waiting to be laid to rest. That comes to 91 people, without counting anyone who may have died in the past few days that we haven’t heard about yet, or even of non-Catholics.”
The village is like a freeze frame, a surreal vision: nobody in the streets, the shops are all closed and the grocery stores and the pharmacy only make home deliveries. Until a fortnight ago, the square in front of the town hall was chock-full of children; now there’s not a soul in sight. Everything is static, as if frozen where it was on that Saturday at the beginning of March, when the government decided to close the whole of the region of Lombardy.
But here the story seems to stretch further back in time, and every day it seems increasingly likely that the man dubbed “Patient One”, from Codogno in the Lodi area, is only the first person to have been tested and officially declared to be infected by the coronavirus, and that the epidemic had in fact been spreading for some time.
Don Matteo – underlining that he is not a doctor and that he doesn’t wish to overstep the mark – limits himself to chronicling the facts that have devastated his community:
“We believe this thing has been around since the beginning of the year or even since Christmas, without being identified. For a start, the nursing home in Nembro had a peak of anomalous deaths: in January, 20 people died of pneumonia, the last one – this week – was the chairman of the Giuseppe Pezzotta Foundation, affectionately known as Bepo. The whole of last year, there were only seven deaths there. And so the number of funerals began to swell, week in, week out, with everyone talking about this severe pneumonia going round.
“Before Mardi Gras, half the town was in bed with fever. I remember that while we were discussing whether to hold the celebrations and the parade with the children, we had to close down the “homework space” because most of the volunteers who supervised the kids were sick. But there was no talk of coronavirus back then in Italy; who knows how many of us were already sick and then got better.
“Gradually, everything ground to a halt; we started off by suspending mass, but we kept tending to the sick, meeting their families, for as long as possible, because you can’t refuse them comfort. We tried to exercise as much caution as possible, but today I am the only priest who is still healthy, the others are all down with fever. Don Giuseppe is in hospital, and Don Antonio, the parish priest, was taken ill but has now recovered.
“Then we started holding the first funerals of those taken by coronavirus, in the presence of close family only. In the week of 2 March, we buried 14 people, when usually there are only two at most.”
The last funeral rites to be celebrated before the government put a stop to them were for Massimo, a 52-year-old man who worked in graphics and printing. He was a volleyball enthusiast, the sport played by his three daughters, aged 25, 15 and 12. Don Matteo officiated the last rites on the afternoon of Saturday 7 March:
“Only his wife and daughters were present, and a few friends waited at a safe distance in the main square for the passing of the hearse. Massimo was never tested, he died at home in the days when panic was skyrocketing and the emergency was at its peak; our family doctors were the first to get sick or to end up in quarantine, it was difficult to get any answers, it was havoc.
“He had a high temperature for a week, it kept creeping up, then he began experiencing respiratory problems. They called for help, but when the paramedics arrived, there was nothing more that could be done.”
Since that week, not only has the death knell been silenced, but when possible, the ambulances go about their business in silence to reduce the fretfulness the constant sound of the siren can trigger.
Now that funerals can no longer be held, he can only accompany the deceased to the cemetery: “The families notify us, and we go to bless the coffins or the urns before the remains are buried. It’s very sad, detached, I do my best to bestow a minimum of humanity.
“They are people who died in hospital in exceptional circumstances, in complete solitude, with relatives who saw an ambulance leave with their loved ones, then never heard anything until the announcement of their death, and the call to collect their personal belongings. And I’m not talking about one isolated incident.”
As soon as he felt well enough, the parish priest Don Antonio started calling all the families in mourning to comfort them.
When the shops closed, the Town Council asked the parish to help them spread the word that groceries could be delivered; the shops got organised, and Don Matteo put together a team of 40 youngsters between the ages of 15 and 17, who went door-to-door to put flyers in all the mailboxes.
“Another incredible thing is the volunteers who bring medicine to the sick, the elderly and those in quarantine,” he tells me. “A strong sense of community has been rediscovered, and the territory has shown a deeply moving sense of human kindness.”
The town tries to keep updated – people want to know who has died, who has been hospitalised – but sometimes, in this constant back and forth of messaging on WhatsApp, some colossal misinformation gets passed on, often due to confusing two people with the same name.
“Yesterday morning there were reports that the former parish priest, who was with us until last year and who is hospitalised, had died. A lot of people got in touch with me to express their condolences, but between one call and another, he also phoned to tell me that he was better and that he could finally speak again. I didn’t have the courage to tell him that the town was already mourning his passing.”
Last Sunday dealt a major blow for the community, when Ivana Valoti, the 58-year-old obstetrician, died in the very hospital she worked at in Alzano.
“Word had gone round that she was better. We knew that she had taken care of her mother, who died two weeks ago of coronavirus, but people were hopeful for her. Then, suddenly, she had a seizure and she never recovered. We were all grief stricken, because Ivana assisted in the delivery of most of the children in the town. She represented the life that is created, and her untimely death was the hardest blow.”
In this emptiness and silence, Don Matteo evokes technology to celebrate mass in the vacant church and then uploads it to YouTube. Parish groups meet in video chat rooms or through Zoom, and every morning he records a podcast with his observations on the day’s gospel. Parishioners find it on every platform, from Spotify to Apple and Facebook to Twitter, and they share it. Five hundred people download it every day.
“Now I have to go and finish editing tomorrow’s one – it’s the Gospel of Matthew that talks about debt, numbers and forgiveness,” Don Matteo says.
Yesterday morning I listened to it, and one sentence stuck in my mind: “The cold, hard precision of numbers often transforms them into ruthless cages, but we have to forgive until we lose count.”
Mario Calabresi served as editor-in-chief of the Italian daily La Repubblica from January 2016 to February 2019. He was previously the editor of La Stampa from 2009 to 2015. This article has been shared by the World Editors Forum, a leading network for print and digital editors of newspapers and news organisations around the world.