A simple white plastic cross marks each grave. A piece of paper with a family name, sometimes with an initial, sometimes with a first name, is stuck on each cross. No date of birth. No date of death. Cemetery workers placed a single plastic flower on each grave.
Here are those who died of coronavirus in Milan, but whose bodies have not yet been recovered.
A cemetery official, who asked that his name not be used, told me that most of them were elderly and had been in retirement homes. Many, he added, had no families. In some cases, the families of the dead were unable to recover the bodies due to the isolation.
With morgues filled to capacity and more and more dead every day at the height of the epidemic, coronavirus hotspot authorities in Italy had no choice but to bury unclaimed dead like that . If their families come forward to claim the bodies after the epidemic is over, the remains will be exhumed and buried.
Those who were buried here died alone. Again, with coronavirus, almost everyone dies alone.
Carla Porfirio desperately wanted to be with her mother in her last moments.
Before the coronavirus epidemic, she visited her mother Michela, 85, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, every day in the sprawling retirement home of the Palazzolo-Don Gnocchi Institute in Milan.
When the nursing home suddenly prevented loved ones from visiting relatives as the virus spread, Porfirio said she called daily to inquire about her mother. The staff reassured her every day that Michela was fine.
Porfirio is concerned that he was not told when his mother first became ill. When she called the home on Sunday, April 5, she was informed that Michela had been put on oxygen and morphine.
She died the next day.
“What is so tragic for those of us who have lost loved ones,” Porfirio told CNN, his voice broken with emotion, “we couldn’t be close to them in their last days because they were in pain. They needed the hand of their loved ones. “
At the height of the pandemic in northern Italy, the Lombardy regional government asked nursing homes to make room for non-critical patients of Covid-19, to ease the massive burden imposed on hospitals.
Porfirio said that the Palazzolo-Don Gnocchi retirement home had placed one of these patients in the same room as his mother and two other older women.
When Porfirio protested, she said that a staff member told her that the house had no choice; he had run out of space.
The Palazzolo-Don Gnocchi Institute told CNN in a statement that “from the detection of the first case … at the Palazzolo Institute, the Don Gnocchi Foundation began isolation, mapping and testing procedures on contacts exposed to the risk of contagion “. … All positive cases of Covid-19 were treated in accordance with protocols provided by the authorities and in coordination with the authorities themselves. “
The institute did not respond to Carla Porfirio’s claims regarding the care of her mother.
Italian authorities are investigating a series of health violations in retirement homes across the country during the Covid-19 crisis.
The Palazzolo-Don Gnocchi Institute believes that the investigation will show that their work was correct.
“We are convinced that the brief presented by lawyers for the Foundation to the Milan public prosecutor’s office and the documents subsequently acquired by the judiciary will confirm the accuracy of the Foundation’s work in the context of this health emergency,” said -he declares.
The Lombardy regional government has told CNN that it does not give interviews on “the issue of retirement homes” due to the ongoing investigation.
At least 15 facilities have been closed and their patients resettled after inspections by the Italian police health services – Nuclei Antisofisticazione e Sanita (NAS) – have found that many do not comply with coronavirus protocols, including by providing enough protective equipment for staff and dedicated quarantine areas for suspected coronavirus patients.
Sixty-one people were brought before the judicial authorities. Another 157 people were fined more than $ 78,500 (72,000 euros).
Like many who have lost loved ones in retirement homes because of the coronavirus, Carla Porfirio is outraged.
“It is not civilized,” she said. “We are in 2020 and it is still happening? The images are like the Spanish flu epidemic 100 years ago. And we are in the same state?” she asks.
Calls for responses
Alessandro Azzoni said recently that his 75-year-old mother, Marisa, was physically strong and reactive, despite her Alzheimer’s disease. He took her regularly for walks, for an ice cream, to dance in the park.
Marisa is now in critical condition, receiving respiratory assistance, in a Milan hospital after being transferred from the city’s Pio Albergo Trivulzio retirement home.
The Pio Albergo Trivulzio nursing home also admitted Covid-19 patients and the virus has spread.
Azzoni presented on his phone a diagram of his mother’s retirement home, based on information from doctors and nurses who he said worked at home. A large part of the map is colored red, showing the services that now house Covid-19 patients.
The home is being investigated in several manslaughter complaints by staff and relatives of patients who claim it did not protect residents and medical workers from infection.
Milan’s public prosecutor Mauro Clerici said last month that he was investigating “more than 100 dead” at his home during the Covid-19 epidemic.
Clerici said the investigation would focus on “what crimes could have been committed in accordance with existing legislation applied to a pandemic”.
No arrests have been made and no one has been charged in this case.
A spokesman for the retirement home Pio Albergo Trivulzio declined to comment out of respect for the investigators, saying they should “work freely and without any pressure”.
A spokeswoman for the house told CNN last month that “the rules for masks are being followed,” adding that the death toll in the first quarter of 2020 was consistent with that for the same period last year.
Azzoni, who founded a group demanding a criminal investigation into what happened at Pio Albergo Trivulzio, describes it as a “massacre”.
With an investigation, he says, “We have the opportunity to change things completely, to put humans back in the center.”
The Lombardy region accounts for around half of the 32,169 deaths in Italy.
One of the hardest hit communities in Lombardy is the town of Nembro, in the foothills of the Alps.
Of the 87 residents of Nembro’s main nursing home, the Nembro Nursing Home Foundation, 34 have died from the virus.
While law enforcement officials will not comment on whether the home is under investigation, its director, Barbara Codalli, told CNN there were no allegations of wrongdoing against the home that she says has never hosted Covid patients.
As soon as staff realized that the virus had spread to the home, Codalli said: “We decided to close the structure to families and to close the daycare, even though we did not know at the time what was really going on, but with the feeling that something was going on out of the ordinary. ”
“We started using PPE, masks, not easily because finding them was difficult, we found them at absurd prices,” she adds.
But despite everything, the house was overwhelmed by the virus, which, according to Codalli, severely struck its staff, killing its president and one of his doctors.
She accuses the provincial health authorities of being late in testing residents of the nursing home.
The Lombardy regional government, which oversees the health authorities, declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
Barbara Codalli noted that when the first cases appeared during the third week of February, it took weeks for the samples to be taken.
“The very first samples were taken on April 10,” she said, “regardless of what some claimed on television.”
The mayor of Nembro, Claudio Cancelli, confirmed to CNN that the first samples, from the most seriously ill patients in the house, had been taken from April 10; he said that testing of all staff and the remaining patients did not begin until April 23.
In Nembro, we searched for obituaries – but only found two recently. We called a funeral home to ask where we could find more. The funeral director explained that the municipality of Nembro had removed all buildings, except the last, to avoid damaging the city’s morale.
Mayor Cancelli confirmed that the obituaries had been deleted, but denied that there was an official order to do so in order to stimulate the minds of citizens. He insisted that the decision was based on common sense, adding that if it had improved morale, he was satisfied with it.
A series of notices from the beginning of March was found next to the Nembro cemetery, which showed that in just three days – from March 7 to 9 – five elderly men and women had died.
The funeral finally takes place in Nembro while the lock in Italy is released.
“A tsunami overwhelmed us”
Giacomo Boffelli, 84, died on March 11. Friends and family were finally able to say goodbye two months later, at a simple ceremony near the entrance to the city cemetery.
Her daughter Nicoletta read a statement. “We have never abandoned you. We never will, because you will always be in our hearts.”
Giacomo’s widow, Margherita, sat down and listened, the mask covering her nose and mouth moist with tears.
After the ceremony, while Giacomo’s ashes were placed in the family grave, Nicoletta said to me, “The woman who works here at the cemetery says that all of this was empty before, and now it is filling up.”
Indeed, new images mark the graves of the deceased recently. Funeral directors and gravediggers are the busiest people in Nembro today.
“It was as if a tsunami had engulfed us, especially the elderly,” says Nicoletta.
Spring has arrived in Lombardy. In the cities of the region, people venture out to take advantage of time and their first signs of freedom, as the lock eases.
However, unlike other parts of Italy where the balance of coronaviruses was lighter, in Lombardy, a hint of sadness hangs in the air.