Here in the Italian region of Lombardy, which has been one of the pandemic's deadliest epicenters, months of grief have now turned to anger.
It began as relatives of COVID-19 victims formed a Facebook group Noi Denunceremo ("We will sue"), where 55,000 members are demanding the truth about Italy's fumbled coronavirus response, La Repubblica reported. Last month, after dozens poured into a local court to file reports, the prosecutor who took on their case grilled Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and regional leaders in Lombardy. We don't know if they will get the answers they seek, but the moment for hard questions has clearly arrived.
Similar lawsuits and legislative actions are spreading in other countries too, fueled not only by bereaved families but also by citizens and opposition politicians. More than 3,000 lawsuits have already been filed in the US. The UK's health secretary faces legal action. Meanwhile in France, the Parliament opened two enquiry commissions into the country's almost 29,000 deaths. "I hope for full transparency about what happened during the crisis, without neither attacks nor concessions," Eric Ciotti, an opposition leader in Parliament spearheading the probe, told Le Monde.
On a personal level for survivors, there is no doubt something comforting in the knowledge that investigations are opening: a moment of reckoning, righting wrongs and setting the record straight.
I live in Milan, the capital of Lombardy, and thankfully haven't lost anyone due to COVID-19. But my neighbors have — and witnessing those in my city and region taking action leaves little doubt for me: those responsible for what has clearly been grave mismanagement, including transferring patients to nursing homes and failing to test adequately, should be held accountable for their mistakes.
Lawsuits and legislative actions are spreading in other countries too — Photo: Marco Piraccini/Mondadori Portfolio/ZUMA
Looking for culprits in the aftermath of a tragedy is nothing new. Most major catastrophes are followed by a deluge of litigation: After the Great Recession, financial institutions faced lawsuits for misleading investors and regulation. After 9/11, a victim compensation fund paid $7 billion to victims and families if they agreed not to sue airlines.
But it is not always clear who (if anyone) is responsible for a death when a novel pandemic strikes every country in the world. Is it the government that created faulty pandemic plans? Or those who starved the hospital's budgets for years before? Or wait, is it — as an Associated Press investigation suggested — China's fault for allegedly withholding information early on?
The different strands of questions are visible everywhere, including here in Lombardy. The chain of events that led to thousands of deaths includes unreliable information coming from China; superficial World Health Organization scrutiny of that country; the authorities' refusal to set up localised lockdowns; widespread shortages of facemasks; the lack of chemical reagents and swabs; an order that doctors do not visit patients at home ...
The quest for truth and justice will no doubt teach us something about what happened, and hopefully lead to better policies in the future. But the question of justice — "who is the culprit?" — is less clear. The scale and suddenness of the pandemic raises a more philosophical question: When so many actors are involved, so many mistakes are made, millions of people suffer, whom do you punish? Or, what is the price if we don't punish anyone?