Codogno one year on: How is the first Italian town hit by coronavirus faring?

On February 21st 2020, Italy's first locally-transmitted coronavirus cases were detected in the town of Codogno. Today, the town is changed forever.

Codogno one year on: How is the first Italian town hit by coronavirus faring?
On Sunday Codogno, a small city of 15,000 people, will mark one year since it recorded the first locally acquired case of Covid-19 in Italy. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Entering the gate of the Codogno cemetery, with its four massive pillars and “Resurrection” written in Latin overhead, the ravages of coronavirus are not immediately apparent.

But beyond the scores of kneeling marble angels and ornamental graves, a newer cloister of simple granite crypts bear witness to the onslaught of what was then a terrifying new virus on this modest northern Italian city.

In a ceremony on Sunday, Codogno will mark one year since it recorded the first locally acquired case of Covid-19 in Italy, in what became the first major outbreak in Europe.

The virus tore through the wider Lombardy region, marking Italy as the new epicentre of the global pandemic that has now claimed more than two million lives — including almost 100,000 in Italy.

February 23, February 24, February 28, read the dates on the shiny grey crypts. Underneath engraved names, and sometimes the image of a smiling face, the dates gain momentum: March 1, March 5, March 10, 13, 17…

The virus tore through the wider Lombardy region, marking Italy as the new epicentre of the global pandemic that has now claimed more than two million lives. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

The surge in cases took everyone by surprise, said Roberto Codazzi, 58, the cemetery's deputy custodian. “In two months, we saw what we usually had in a year,” he told AFP.

READ ALSO: How are countries across Europe faring in the battle against Covid-19?

With his colleague, Codazzi saw the intensity of the virus on display after Friday, February 21 — when a 38-year-old man known as “Patient 1” was identified at the city's hospital after a doctor broke protocol to test him for coronavirus. Within hours, six cases had been confirmed in the town.

On Saturday, there were already bodies lined up outside the cemetery for burial.

'Who will be next?'

Today in Codogno, a small city of 15,000 people, talk of Covid-19 centres on shuttered businesses, rent to pay and the umpteenth restriction on normal life.

Yet few can hear the sound of a siren without a pang.

Emy Cavalli, the third-generation owner of the Central Bar on the main plaza, recalled the eerie, early days of the lockdown imposed on Codogno and 10 other northern communities after the first case was identified, immediately followed by the first two confirmed coronavirus deaths in Italy, one of them a 77-year-old woman outside Codogno.

“I remember how silent it was,” said Cavalli. “Every three minutes you heard the sound of an ambulance.

“We asked ourselves, 'Who will it be? Who will be next?'”

Within a month, Codogno's death toll more than tripled, with 154 deaths in March versus 49 in the same period a year earlier, Mayor Francesco Passerini told AFP.

“They couldn't keep up,” Passerini said of the cemetery workers, who were eventually reinforced by the civil protection unit.

Codogno's death toll more than tripled compared to the same period the previous year, said Codogno mayor Francesco Passerini. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Caskets awaiting burial were stored in a shuttered church, the cemetery was shut to the public and funeral notices were printed without dates to discourage potential mourners from breaking the quarantine to pay their respects. 

The daily coffins awaiting custodian Codazzi frequently brought an unwelcome shock: “I said, 'Oh no, I know him! I just saw him a week ago.'” 

Codogno's Red Cross unit was zigzagging the territory, with almost 500 ambulance trips in March alone.

“When they call us, we don't know what we're going to find,” said the head of emergency services, Luciano Parmigiani.

Meanwhile, family doctor Andrea Lozzi was working day and night to keep his patients out of the hospital, from which too often they never returned.

Lozzi — whose name locals evoke with reverence for his tireless work — declines all interviews, explaining to AFP: “You have to put your hands into your work, and not your mouth.”

READ ALSO: How will Italy's Covid-19 strategy change under the new government?

Residents outside a wine bar in a main shopping street in Codogno. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

'Journey of suffering'

By the time Codogno's situation began to improve, attention had turned to the worst-hit province of Bergamo some 70 kilometres (43 miles) north, where images of army convoys transporting coffins broadcast the horror of Italy's outbreak to the world.

As the country's death toll spiralled to 4,825 one month after Codogno's first case, some questioned whether a March 8 lockdown of populous Lombardy – and Italy one day later – had come too late, while scores of nursing home fatalities spurred allegations of mismanagement by health authorities.

On March 25, Mattia Maestri, Codogno's “Patient 1”, was released from hospital, cured.

Two months later, President Sergio Mattarella visited Codogno's cemetery, recalling the place “where our journey of suffering began”. A marble plaque remembers the dead. 

In his office at the Red Cross, as workers finish building a memorial outside, Parmigiani scrolls through an operations log from those first weeks in 2020.

He points to where the numbers begin to decline, and pauses: “We managed to fight something no one even knew what it was.”


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Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”