Bergamo Postcard: The Emotional Rubble Of A COVID-19 Epicenter

Grief and catastrophe in and around the Italian city that became a symbol of the swiftness of the pandemic's death and destruction.

A cemetery of Bergamo on May 26.
A cemetery of Bergamo on May 26.
Annalisa Camilli

Is there a permanent relationship between the idea we have of death and that of ourselves?

—Philippe Ariés, Western Attitudes Toward Death

BERGAMO — The bells toll for the dead in the deserted streets of the small village of Alzano Sopra, near the northern Italian city of Bergamo. The front door of the austere San Lorenzo Martire church is open, but the portico arcade at the end of the marble stairway is still empty. Inside the church, a black urn surrounded by white orchids sits on an altar. The hand sanitizer dispenser in the middle of the entrance and signs on the walls reminding visitors they must wear a facemask are hints of life that can't quite resume like before.

The photograph of an old man with his hair turned white sits on the altar. He looks straight into the lens without smiling, and there's a sign on the pillow of orchids from loved ones. Shortly after 3 p.m., groups of Red Cross volunteers start to appear from the bottom of the valley, dressed in their rescuer outfits.

Franco Gubinelli, 80, was one of the managers of the local Red Cross branch. He died of COVID-19 back in March, but his funeral took place more than two months later, on June 12. His body had been taken to Florence on an army truck to be cremated and was handed back to his family more than one month later.

Meanwhile, his daughter, Michela, and grandchildren try to reckon with their sudden loss without the chance to say goodbye with a funeral: one day, Gubinelli was taken away in an ambulance, and a few weeks later he had died. The family waited for the end of the ban on funerals to allow friends, relatives and acquaintances to attend a mass in honor of someone who'd had a major role in the community. "I thought that many would have liked to attend his funeral," she says.

The hamlet of Alzano Sopra sits at the foot of the Alps along the river Serio in Lombardy, the Italian region hardest hit by the coronavirus. In the past, this area was home to some important plants — first wool, then paper, then to one of the biggest cement manufactures in Europe. Between February and April 2020, this area between the Serio valley and the southern Bergamo province recorded the highest coronavirus death toll in Italy: more than 6,000 people.

In some towns, the virus wiped out an entire generation of people over 60 who still participated in community life. "It created holes in our social fabric," says Camillo Bertocchi, the mayor of Alzano Lombardo. "In many cases, the people who died had central roles in our community. They volunteered in associations, parishes and local societies. They were reference points that we'll struggle to replace. This is another emergency we'll have to face." In some small towns of the Serio and Brembo valleys, deaths jumped 2,000% compared to the same period last year.

Hints of life that can't quite resume like before — Photo: Sergio Agazzi/IPA/ZUMA

"We narrowly avoided mass graves," says Vanda Piccioli, who owns a funeral company in Alzano Lombardo. Recounting what she's been through in the last few months, tears gather in her eyes, even if she's been in the funereal business for years. "Sometimes, before coming home to my children, I would pull over and cry — out of fear, frustration and tiredness," she says. "We've seen things we'd now like to forget."

The image of mass graves is harsh but realistic — some were dug in countries including the US, where dozens of bodies were buried on Hart Island in New York City in April. "Our company usually carries out 1,400 funeral services a year — we did 1,100 in March alone," Piccioli says. "It means we did a year's work in one month. At the peak, we had 60 to 80 bodies a day." The worst days, she recalls with precision, were March 13, 14 and 15.

The presence of the disease and death in small towns where everybody knows each other, together with the inability to hold funerals for more than two months, has left many with anxiety and a lack of closure, which for some has turned into lasting psychological distress. "Many said they were unable to process what was going on," Piccioli says. "They expected their parents to come back any minute." The death of a loved one became like a disappearance, and the grieving process freezes.

Funeral workers also faced a difficult new situation. "The dead couldn't be washed or dressed as usual, because their bodies were considered infectious. Many hospital morgues would give them to us in a black bag or wrapped in disinfected sheets — we also risked becoming infected," Piccioli says. In the first few weeks, funeral workers also lacked masks.

In many cases, the relatives of the dead would give the workers personal belongings or clothes to put in their coffin. "We felt as if we were a bridge between the families and the dead. We all know each other around here, so people would text me, asking to say a prayer or bring an object. I felt a great sense of responsibility," she says.

We've seen things we'd now like to forget.

One of the most iconic images of the Italian coronavirus outbreak is that of army trucks transporting dozens of coffins from the Bergamo cemetery to other Italian cities to cremate the bodies. Another one is the video of a journalist flipping through the Eco di Bergamo, the local paper, which had dedicated multiple pages to obituaries, which typically occupy half a page. "The obituaries pages grew day by day; at the peak, we had 13 pages," says the paper's editor-in-chief, Alberto Ceresoli. The news could shock journalists too. "We would find the news of a relative's or a friends' death there. We were involved, but I think that the force of the events helped us hang in. We didn't even have the time to pause and think of our grief."

Military trucks carrying bodies of patients who died from COVID-19 infections from Bergamo to Bologna — Photo: Gianni SchicchiXinhua/ZUMA

Families, mayors and infected people called the Eco every day, and the newspaper decided to take on a role in the community's processing of grief and memory. "From April 30 April to June 3, we published a kind of memorial on the façade of our building, projecting the photos of about 5,000 people," Ceresoli says. "Locals would arrive at any hour, gather in front of the façade and bring flowers. We have to remember these victims. I think their memory will help the city restart; there's no will to forget."

As the French historian Philippe Ariés wrote in his "Western Attitudes Towards Death," the dead of medieval Europe were routinely buried in anonymous mass graves, charnel grounds and chapels. The worship of the dead and individual graves arose later, with mass graves becoming a symbol of the barbarity of wars and other catastrophes.

But recently, death is denied, removed out of sight and no longer talked about. Death has become a taboo even greater than sex. The pandemic and the suspension of funerals has brought to light this tension and our society's relationship with death.

Psychological support is seen as a stigma.

This situation has left long-lasting effects and psychological wounds in the community, even if residents find it hard to talk about it. A recent survey by the Istituto Mario Negri said that the coronavirus had left Bergamo with the worst mental health toll in Lombardy. Nearly 50% of all interviewees reported symptoms of stress, and 5.3% said the symptoms were severe.

Maurizio Bonati, head of public health at the Istituto Mario Negri, explained that researchers found "a correlation between mental health well-being and distance from the area of Nembro and Alzano. The farther from it, the fewer the symptoms."

Today, the risk lies in turning your back to sorrow, focusing solely on the economy, and trying to forget. "Some have already tried to remove the tragedy through chauvinist slogans calling on people to move on, but leaving the pain to linger," says Paolo Barcella, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Bergamo who is running a project on processing grief and preserving memory in the areas in Italy that recorded the most deaths for coronavirus. "The real challenge will be to metabolize this pain, respecting the course of times and the need to grieve. Not processing personal tragedies creates fertile ground for psychological suffering."

According to Barcella, we must first understand what happens when an entire generation, with its resources and memories, disappears from a community; what happens when children experience the vanishing of the voices coming from their past, which often represent their first brush with history. Barcella says that psychological support is unpopular and seen as a stigma in Bergamo, and yet we should think of collective answers to deal with the catastrophe.

"Hostility to psychotherapy is widespread even among the most educated groups," he says. "The idea that one should look after oneself dominates. And so, hypochondria, psychosomatic reactions, medicalization of psychological distress and outbursts prevail. Everything to not accept the responsibility of our limits."

Isaia Invernizzi of Eco di Bergamo contributed to this article.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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