ROME – As Italy prepares to emerge from the West’s first and most extensive coronavirus lockdown, it is increasingly clear that something went terribly wrong in Lombardy, the hardest-hit region in Europe’s hardest-hit country.
Italy had the bad luck of being the first Western country to be slammed by the outbreak, and its official total of 26,000 fatalities lags behind only the U.S. in the global death toll. Italy's first homegrown case was recorded Feb. 21, at a time when the World Health Organization was still insisting the virus was “containable” and not nearly as infectious as the flu.
But there also is evidence that demographics and health care deficiencies collided with political and business interests to expose Lombardy’s 10 million people to COVID-19 in ways unseen anywhere else, particularly the most vulnerable in nursing homes.
Virologists and epidemiologists say what went wrong there will be studied for years, given how the outbreak overwhelmed a medical system long considered one of Europe’s best, while in neighboring Veneto, the impact was significantly more controlled.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, are deciding whether to lay any criminal blame for the hundreds of dead in nursing homes, many of whom don’t even figure into Lombardy’s official death toll of 13,269, half of Italy’s total.
By contrast, Lombardy’s front-line doctors and nurses are being hailed as heroes f or risking their lives to treat the sick under extraordinary levels of stress, exhaustion, isolation and fear. One WHO official said it was a “miracle” they saved as many as they did.
Here’s a look at the perfect storm of what went wrong in Lombardy, based on interviews with doctors, union representatives, mayors and virologists, as well as reports from the Superior Institute of Health, national statistics agency ISTAT and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which advises developed economies on policy.