Italy has a world-class health system. The coronavirus has pushed it to the breaking point
Northern Italy has one of the best public health systems in the Western world. Its doctors and medical professionals are well-trained. They felt prepared when the coronavirus began to spread through their prosperous, well-educated region.
And they still could do nothing to prevent what happened.
"I have never seen so many people die together before my eyes," said a nurse from one of the main hospitals in Bergamo, a city in northern Italy that is at the center of the worst outbreak in Europe. "It feels like we are crossing in the middle of a battlefield."
More than 2,500 people have died in about four weeks in Italy. With over 31,500 confirmed cases, the country's doctors and nurses — particularly in the hardest-hit cities in the north — are struggling to keep up. They're running out of beds, equipment and even people, particularly as more health care workers catch the virus.
The nurse, who was not authorized to discuss the situation and asked not to be identified, has since had to stop working. Like many of the front-line health care professionals in Italy, the nurse caught the virus that colleagues have been trying to stop.
"We are getting sick one after the other," the nurse said.
In the months since the new pathogen was identified, northern Italy has emerged as a warning about what can happen even in a region that is considered to have one of the most proficient public health care systems in the world, and even after the country took drastic measures to try to contain the virus' spread.
Milan and Bergamo have been especially devastated. Bergamo alone has had nearly 3,800 confirmed cases.
The huge number of infections has overwhelmed hospitals in the wealthy region of Lombardy, where both cities are, even as officials went to great lengths to prepare facilities by converting some wards into makeshift intensive care units and adding extra beds wherever possible.
Dr. Lorenzo D'Antiga, director of the pediatric department at Hospital Papa Giovanni XXIII in Bergamo, said he and his colleagues are operating in a region with some of the highest incidences of new coronavirus cases.
"We are really in the eye of the cyclone," he said.
In early March, as deaths from the virus spiked and the number of confirmed cases swelled, Italy's government needed to take decisive steps to slow the lightning-fast rate of infection.
On March 8, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte issued a lockdown of Italy's Lombardy region, effectively quarantining about 16 million people in the north. Two days later, Conte expanded the quarantine order to include the entire country. The decrees came just over a month after similar quarantines went into effect in parts of China where the virus first emerged.
Overnight, the normally bustling streets of cities like Milan and Venice were deserted, their sprawling piazzas and picturesque walkways silent and devoid of people.
But this tranquility betrayed a very different reality for Italians at the front lines of the pandemic.
"It seems relaxed because everyone is staying inside and people are cooking and looking at old photos and doing work at home," said Francesco Longo, director of the Centre for Research on Health and Social Care Management at Bocconi University in Milan. "But in the hospitals, it's like a war."
D'Antiga said that at his hospital, almost half of the 1,000 beds are dedicated to treating patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Most other operations at the hospital have scaled back significantly or ground to a halt.