CFJ EXCLUSIVE Part 2: The full story of how Covid-19 hit the flooring sector

AT Venice airport, Brian King watched the flight information screen opposite. Being a nervous flier, he’d had a couple of beers to take the edge off. Suddenly, he noticed red banners announcing flight after flight had been cancelled. He exchanged concerned looks with his wife. Maybe their travel operator had been overly optimistic about their flight remaining on schedule.

‘Now my wife was worried. She feared we’d never get out.’ But fortunately for the Kings, their flight to Manchester – along with four or five others – remained on schedule. Finally, after a harrowing wait, they were called to depart. ‘We were very relieved,’ said Brian.

He had no idea how lucky he’d been. As per his travel agent’s message, PM Conte was effectively sealing off Italy. Emergency measures such as travel restrictions and bans on public gatherings were being enforced. Flight passengers departing and arriving were having to justify why they’d flown.

In a comment that would resonate with Britons, Conte told La Repubblica: ‘I’ve been thinking about Winston Churchill’s speeches – it’s our darkest hour, but we’ll make it.’

In fact, the first cases of Covid-19 in Italy hadn’t been in the north but further south, in the capital Rome, where a Chinese couple from Wuhan had arrived – via Milan, Verona and Parma – on 28 January. After coughing and feeling feverish, they were diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2 on 31 January.

Angela Giuffrida, Italy correspondent for The Guardian, noted ‘No more masks’ signs appearing on the windows of chemists in Rome. ‘My neighbour began disinfecting the banisters of the building’s stairwell and door handles. ‘You never know,’ he said one morning, smoking a cigarette. I chalked most of this up to paranoia, not quite grasping something happening so far away in China could reach Europe.’

That day, the government stopped flights to and from China. It wasn’t until 6 February that the third case was confirmed, an Italian repatriated from Wuhan. By 26 February, all three patients had recovered. But by then, the virus had started to take on a life of its own with the emergence of a secondary cluster in Veneto where, on 21 February, two people had tested positive. The next day one of them, a 78-year-old man, died in Monselice, becoming Italy’s fatality; later that day, 54 cases were confirmed countrywide.

On 22 February, there were 54 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Italy. The next day, draconian measures were slapped on 11 towns, 10 in Lombardy and one in Veneto (Vo) in a vain attempt to stop the virus in its tracks. By 25 February Angela Giuffrida, now in Milan to cover the developing story, noticed a group of tourists sitting near the foyer to her hotel, coughing repeatedly. ‘Did they have coronavirus?’ she wondered. ‘I became hypervigilant for potential symptoms.’

Only six days later, on 2 March (two days before Brian left for Venice), the number of infected had exploded to a staggering 1,694. Already, 10% of Lombardy’s doctors and nurses had been quarantined after testing positive. Some hospitals were overwhelmed. Dr Massimo Galli, head of infectious disease at Milan’s Sacco Hospital, said: ‘This epidemic is on a scale that’s larger than anyone could have thought, imagined or prevented.’

It was as though Italy – and more specifically Bergamo, a province of 1.2m people in the Lombardy region – had been a tinderbox waiting to be lit. The metaphorical spark was said to have been a Champions League football game, the biggest in Atalanta’s history, which took place on 19 February. About 40,000 Bergamo inhabitants travelled to Milan’s San Siro stadium where they were joined by about 2,500 fans from Spanish club Valencia. In total, a record 45,792 came to see Atalanta make its debut in Europe’s premier club competition.

The game, later described as a ‘biological bomb’, may have become ‘Game Zero’ for Bergamo. Less than a week later, the province saw its first cases of Covid-19. More than a third of Valencia’s team became infected, as did a journalist who attended the game. Valencian fans also started to succumb, taking the virus to that southern Spanish city.

Luca Lorini, head of ICU at Bergamo’s Pope John XXIII hospital told The Associated Press: ‘I’m sure 40,000 people hugging and kissing each other while standing a centimetre apart — four times, because Atalanta scored four goals (the final result was 4-1) — was definitely a huge accelerator for contagion. Right now we’re at war. When peace time comes, I can assure you we’ll go to see how many of the 40,000 people who went to the game became infected.’

On 1 March, special commissioner for Covid-19, Angelo Borrelli, said Italians’ physically expressive nature had been well exploited by the virus. ‘We have a collective social life that is very florid, very expansive. We have lots of contact, we shake hands, kiss each other, hug each other. Maybe it’s better now not to shake hands, and don’t have too much contact, and try to be a bit less expansive.’

But by the time Brian was airborne for Manchester, Bergamo’s nightmare was irreversible. So numerous were the dead that cemeteries were overwhelmed; military trucks were transporting bodies to nearby regions for cremation. Profusely family-oriented Italians were denied the opportunity to bid their loved ones farewell. Hearses resorted to driving slowly past the homes of the dead so family members could wave their goodbyes. In the obituary section of the local paper, 10 pages were needed in mid-March where only one had been necessary in early February.

On 11 March, two days after Brian had left Venice, Italy had the second highest number of infections outside China. That day the World Health Organisation (WHO) awoke from its apparent slumber, finally declaring the outbreak a pandemic. ‘WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we’re deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the … inaction,’ said its director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (As late as 30 January, the WHO had sniffed at the prospect of labelling Covid-19 a pandemic. ‘Pandemic isn’t a word to use lightly or carelessly. It’s a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death,’ Adhanom said.) So why, when China appeared to have been aware of the new virus since November, did it not inform WHO until the end of December? Why, when it knew human-to-human transmission was possible in December, was it still denying it in January? And why and why and why.

To find answers, it’s pertinent to go back to the real Ground Zero – the Chinese city of Wuhan.