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A mourner with a protective face mask attends a funeral service in Nembro, Italy, on March 7. The small town risks going down in history as having the highest percentage of victims in the coronavirus epidemic. Photo: EPA-EFE

Plague almost wiped out the Italian village of Nembro. Death has returned with Covid-19

  • Town risks going down in history as having the highest percentage of victims in the country’s coronavirus outbreak
  • Of Nembro’s five priests, tending to 11,500 residents, four fell ill recently with only one left standing

On March 7 in Nembro, the death bells stopped tolling.

“We decided not to ring them any more since that Saturday, the day of the four funerals. 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.”

The small Italian 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, with only one left standing: the youngest, 40-year-old Don Matteo Cella.

Nembro, a small village east of Bergamo in the country’s Lombardy region, risks going from being a headline to going down in history as a town with the highest percentage of victims in the country’s coronavirus outbreak. 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, an average of 10 a month. Recently, 70 died injust 12 days.

The deserted streets of Nembro. Photo: EPA

I went in search of the parish priest, but I found his assistant, the curate Cella, who usually tends to the younger members of the flock. He gave 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 non-Catholics.”

The village is like a freeze-frame, a surreal vision: nobody in the streets, the shops all closed and the grocery stores and the pharmacy only making home deliveries. Just last month, the town hall square 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 been spreading for some time.

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Cella – underlining that he is not a doctor and that he doesn't wish to overstep his 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 around. 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 March 2, we buried 14 people, when usually there are only two at most.”

The last funeral rites before the government put a stop to them were for Massimo, a 52-year-old who worked in graphics and printing. He was a volleyball enthusiast, the sport played by his three daughters, aged 25, 15 and 12.

Cella officiated the last rites on the afternoon of Saturday, March 7: “Only his wife and daughters were present. 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.”

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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 dead 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.”

The first funerals in Nembro for coronavirus victims were held with close family members only. Photo: EPA

As soon as he felt well enough, 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 Cella put together a team of 40 teens, who went door-to-door to put fliers in all the postboxes.

“Another incredible thing,” he says, “are the volunteers who bring medicine to the sick, the elderly and those in quarantine. A strong sense of community has been rediscovered, and the territory has shown a deeply moving sense of human kindness.”

Why does Italy have a much higher coronavirus death toll than Germany?

The town tries to keep updated, as people want to know who has died and who has been hospitalised. Sometimes, in this constant back and forth of messaging on WhatsApp, some colossal misinformation gets passed on, often due to 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.”

The community was dealt a major blow when Ivana Valoti, a 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 Covid-19, 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, Cella 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; every morning, he records a podcast with his observations on the day's gospel that parishioners share. 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.”

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.”

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