Italy’s recent travails have been widely reported. The novel coronavirus first emerged in Lombardy, a region in the country’s prosperous north, on February 21. Sixteen people were diagnosed that day. By early March Lombardy’s hospitals were overrun with patients suffering from severe respiratory distress. On March 8, the Italian government quarantined Lombardy and 14 other northern provinces. March 9, it extended quarantine protocols to the entire nation of 60 million people.
Crisis in Bergamo
The Province of Bergamo, with its capital city of Bergamo, has been especially hard hit. As of April 6, 2,245 COVID-19 deaths had been recorded there. However, many believe that tally is a significant undercount. An investigation by the local newspaper estimated that the virus killed 4,500 people in the province in March alone. Some attribute the widespread outbreak to a major soccer match that took place in Milan on February 19. 45,000 fans attended.
The intensity of the pandemic compelled officials to call for the immediate construction of a field hospital in the city of Bergamo. 150 soldiers in the Alpini, the renowned mountain infantry of the Italian army, stepped up to coordinate the effort. They, along with 350 volunteer local craftsmen and medical professionals completed the 142-bed facility in just 10 days. The facility began receiving COVID-19 patients on April 6.
Background on the Alpini
The Alpini battalions were established in 1872 in order to protect Italy’s borders with France and Austria-Hungary. They served with distinction during World War I, suffering over 114,000 casualties. They are renowned for their ability to navigate the mountain ranges of the Alps and for their courage in battle. However, at the same time, they have popularized various anti-war songs and stories.
Furthermore, the Alpini have historically contributed to humanitarian efforts in Italy and beyond. In addition to their work on the Bergamo field hospital, they helped collect 16,000 kilos of food distribution in the province of South Tyrol.
The National Alpini Association continues to have cultural and political significance in the country. The group, which represents veterans of Alpini battalions, has over 355,000 active members. Each Spring for the past 100 years, throngs of these so called “veci” have congregated for an annual celebration in northern Italy. Moreover, their colorful Christmas choirs are a seasonal presence in many town squares in the region. Members of the mountain infantry wear the Cappelo Alpini, a distinctive green hat featuring a black raven feather.
The unofficial motto of the city of Bergamo is mola mia, which means “never give up.” Below, volunteers at the Bergamo field hospital celebrate the completion of construction, singing “People like us never give up.”