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The man who runs Bergamo, Europes most coronavirus-ravaged town

BERGAMO, Italy — For centuries, the bell in..

BERGAMO, Italy — For centuries, the bell in Bergamos clock tower has rung 100 times every night at 10 p.m.

The coronavirus didnt stop the bell ringing, but it changed a great deal else as Bergamo, a prosperous town of 120,000 people less than an hour north of Milan with a picturesque city center and an ascendant football team, became the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe.

According to official data, 3,110 people died from the virus in the province of Bergamo between January and May. The provinces death rate from the virus was 278 per 100,000 inhabitants and was almost six times higher than in normal times. The number of daily new cases in Bergamo can now be counted on two hands.

“It was like being in a pot on a stove — every day the temperature increased by 1 degree” until it reached boiling point, Giorgio Gori, Bergamos mayor, told POLITICO.

Sitting in his high-ceilinged office in the neoclassical city hall, Gori described how he pulled his town through the pandemic, admitted that he underestimated the risks at firstand said he wished his center-left Democratic Party would ditch its national coalition partner, the 5Star Movement, and join forces with Silvio Berlusconis Forza Italia.

An investigation is already underway by Bergamos public prosecutors into whether authorities should have acted earlier.

Gori, who was reelected as mayor in 2019, had ups and downs during the pandemic but has remained well-liked — he was ranked the third most popular mayor in all of Italy in a survey last month. But hes feeling the pressure from the far-right League, which controls the wider Lombardy region and nearly every village around Bergamo.

Opponents say Gori underestimated the seriousness of the pandemic in its early stages and encouraged people to keep going out to help the economy. He posted on social media in early February after dining at a local Chinese restaurant, telling people to ignore the “completely unjustified alarmism. There is nothing to fear!” The League now uses that photo and those words on posters attacking the mayor.

“Everyone has to deal with his own conscience. I blame myself for not having understood it in advance,” Gori said, adding that he was “not alone” in failing to get to grips with the severity of the pandemic.

The mayor publicly admitted to having underestimated the problem but according to the League, it was too little, too late.

“We waited for the situation to cool down before printing those posters but his way of saying he was sorry was not enough,” said Giacomo Stucchi, a former MP who was defeated by Gori in last years municipal elections.

An investigation is already underway by Bergamos public prosecutors into whether authorities should have acted earlier. Investigators have already spoken with members of the regional and central governments — including Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte — but so far havent questioned Gori. Mayors dont get to make decisions about health care management or isolating infected areas — thats the job of regional and central authorities.

Hard at work

The people of Bergamo have a reputation in Italy for being hard workers and the Lombardy region is the industrial heart of the country, accounting for more than a quarter of all Italian exports.

According to Gori, in the early stages of the pandemic, the work ethic was “a handicap” as “we should have put the screwdriver down and stopped.”

“Theres nothing more alien to our culture than to stop working. Probably this feature — so deeply rooted in us — made it more difficult to understand what we should have done back then: stop working,” he said.

But Bergamos industriousness has had a positive side as the town moves toward recovery, said Gori, with volunteers helping the authorities by raising funds to buy face masks and protective equipment.

Bergamo is moving toward recovery | Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

Maurizio Maggioni — a dentist who has been in charge of coronavirus-related projects run by the local Rotary Club — said the crisis has brought out the best in Bergamos people. Maggioni and other volunteers set up a call center that people could contact to ask for support. They received hundreds of calls every day and performed other public services such as buying equipment for doctors and delivering oxygen tanks.

Yet despite all the efforts and the increased stocks of medical equipment, “we are not ready for the second wave,” Maggioni said.

Beware of populists

At first, Gori was unimpressed with the response to the pandemic from Brussels.

“During the first weeks we felt a big distance between us and Europe, but things changed when the pandemic reached Germany and France, showing that the problem was not only about Italy,” he said.

He praised the recovery package drawn up by EU leaders, of which Italy would be a major beneficiary, saying such an effort “would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.”

Gori was less impressed by his own countrys efforts.

The Democratic Party hasnt succeeded in taming the 5Star Movement as Salvini managed to do when they were allied and its now being held hostage by anti-Europeans, the mayor said.

The mayor — who was instrumental in the rise of former Prime Minister and Mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi — said the government managed the coronavirus crisis “decently” but criticized it for a lack of policies to boost economic growth.

“The only way to defeat populism is to do things,” said Gori, who wants to scrap a pension reform brought in last year under the 5Star-League government and use the cash to cut taxes for female and young workers.

He also urged the government to invest more in innovation. “If we had 5G during the lockdown, we would have been far more productive in smart working,” he said.

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