Bergamo families seek justice: ‘My dad died, they forgot to tell us’

Cristina Longhini’s 65-year-old father Claudio fell sick in March, just as the novel coronavirus was sweeping through their native Lombardy and across Italy.

On 18 March, 10 days after northern Italy went into lockdown, Mrs Longhini received a phone call from the hospital, where he had been rushed in an ambulance. “My dad was unconscious and really sick,” said the 39-year-old pharmacist. “The day after, on March 19, my dad died, but they forgot to tell us.” They informed the family several hours later.

He was one of more than 3,000 people to lose their life from the virus in Bergamo and its surrounding province, one of Italy’s worst hit.

“I saw something I will never forget. His eyes and his mouth wide open, with tears of blood coming out of his eyes and nose,” she said, describing what happened when she went to identify the body. “As I was spending the last moments with my dad they told me to hurry up. The queue behind me was too long.”

Mrs Longhini now wants to know if her father’s death and others could have been avoided. She and other relatives of the deceased have asked Bergamo’s public prosecution office to investigate whether hospitals and the Italian government did enough, soon enough, to avoid a human catastrophe that has scarred the city.

“There was total disorganisation, lack of training and information and very serious administrative and health gaps which resulted in massive hospitalisation and led to the collapse of the system. This is unacceptable, this shouldn’t have happened,” she said.

A patient in Turin in April receiving CPAP treatment © Marco Bertorello/AFP

The steps taken by these families signal potential litigation linked to the Covid-19 outbreak in Italy. They echo similar moves across Europe. The Paris prosecutor this month opened a preliminary investigation into allegations of “involuntary manslaughter” or “exposing to danger or loss of life” in the handling of the pandemic by authorities, after receiving 62 complaints. Lawyers expect similar actions against companies.

Proving such cases however is likely to be difficult. “Any case is going to take a very long time, whether there is substance to it or not. I am sure we will see long and deep investigations by prosecutors before we see anyone filing any cases, either civil and criminal,” said Federico Sutti, managing partner at Dentons in Italy.

The Italian government’s response was initially praised at home in a moment of rare national solidarity, with the approval ratings of Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, rising sharply. The death toll has since exceeded 34,000. As Italy has reopened its economy and the number of new Covid-19 cases have slowed, Mr Conte’s actions face renewed scrutiny.

Last week public prosecutors from Bergamo travelled to Rome to interview Mr Conte and other ministers about their actions during the outbreak. None are under criminal investigation and they were questioned instead as part of an information gathering exercise.

Ahead of his meeting with the prosecutors, Mr Conte said he “was not at all worried”. “I will say the things I have to say to the prosecutors . . . I will dutifully report all the facts to my knowledge.”

Italy was the first country in Europe go into lockdown, a step that many governments elsewhere believed at the time to be impossible. But some of the Bergamo families believe Mr Conte may not have acted quickly enough.

Consuelo Locati, a lawyer co-ordinating the legal team assisting the group of Bergamo relatives called “Noi Denunceremo” (We will report), said that both regional health authorities and the Italian national government must provide answers about actions taken before and during the outbreak. “There was a mix of factors, from the failure to establish [additional] red zones to the management of care homes that allowed the virus to spread,” she said.

Maria Cristina Rota, one of the public prosecutors from Bergamo, speaks to media after interviewing Giuseppe Conte in Rome © Filippo Monteforte/AFP

If the Bergamo public prosecutors feel the evidence is strong enough, the next step will be to launch a formal case. Any formal claim brought by either public prosecutors or families against the Italian national government or any other entity for negligence would likely take a decade to reach a final ruling.

“We are at a very early stage in Italy for these types of cases as the courts have been closed during the outbreak and so initial filings likely haven’t even been made yet,” said Mr Sutti. 

Any criminal or civil case would have to prove that negligence occurred at a national level. “It will be very difficult for any public prosecutor to prove that if the Italian government had taken a different decision then the outcome would have been different. Many other countries waited even longer to lock down,” he said.

Bereaved families want answers and accountability, said Stefano Fusco, a 31-year-old Bergamo resident who lost his 85-year-old grandfather to the virus.

“We are asking for the truth, to understand if it was just a tragic fatality or if someone in a position of command had the chance to contain the virus and did not act correctly. If that is the case, we ask that whoever is responsible faces the legal consequences of their actions,” Mr Fusco said.

For Ms Locati, the lawyer representing the families, a legal investigation would help ensure that any mistakes made are not repeated.

“Thousands of people are no longer with us, they died before the helpless eyes of their families, no one knew what to do to prevent people from dying, with the health system totally collapsing,” she said. “We want to figure out what went wrong, because if we have to deal with a second wave, we can’t let that happen again.”