‘Russians, Cubans, Chinese doctors came. Germans and French didn’t’
The sprawling trade fair and exhibition centre on the outskirts of Bergamo, the Italian city hardest hit by coronavirus, is now a field hospital. Instead of pavilions and stands there are 142 beds, only 38 of them occupied.
Inside the hospital’s red zone, where the sickest patients are treated, there are almost as many Russian medical staff as patients: 32 military doctors and nurses and eight interpreters, all sent by Moscow in a controversial aid gesture.
Accessing intensive care here is a complex process: two layers of protective gear have to go on: first a white hospital gown and then a disposable surgical suit, plastic sandals, gloves, transparent glasses, a transparent welding mask, all sanitised several times with hydroalcoholic gel. . Even then, it’s hard to feel 100% shielded from the virus that tore through this city and the surrounding region, leaving thousands dead in the space of a few weeks.Advertisement
Volunteer medics from an Italian NGO, who worked on the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone and medical teams from Bergamo’s Papa Giovanni XXIII hospital which bore the brunt in the first devastating phase of this region’s outbreak, staff the field facility. But the Russians are instantly recognisable because they brought their own distinctive PPE; white hazmat suits with blue stripes.
The Russians also brought their own logo: two hearts, one wrapped in the Russian flag, the other in the Italian flag, conjoined by the words: From Russia with Love. A poster carrying the logo has been stuck on the wall of the field hospital.
The controversy in Italy surrounding the Russian presence, which La Stampa newspaper suggested was cover for an intelligence-gathering operation and which others have speculated is either aimed at getting the EU to lift sanctions, or a PR exercise to exploit the EU’s lack of cohesion, is not something the Russian doctors are keen to discuss.
Lt Col Alexander Yumanov, head of the Russian medical team, says: “We do not want to get involved in this political controversy, we are doctors who do their job. There is a tradition in Russia that if someone asks us for help, we have to give it to them.”
“We arrived fully equipped, our medical and nursing teams were ready to work from day one, as we had our eight ventilators. We brought another 45 ventilators to Italy as a gift, as well as protective suits, masks, personal protection systems and test kits”.
Where were the tests sent? “We suggested that Italy give them to Bergamo, but we don’t know where they ended up”.
When are they planning to return to Russia? “These terms have not been defined, for the moment we are trying to give the best of ourselves”, says Alexander Volosatov, the deputy head of media of the Russian defence ministry, who accompanies Yumanov throughout.
Are they waiting for everyone to be cured? “We’re waiting for the epidemiological situation to stabilise” Volosatov says.
It is still not clear how the Russian involvement came about. A politician from Matteo Salvini’s pro-Russia Lega party claims he brokered the intervention via the German far-right party the AfD. The colonel says it was a bilateral arrangement between Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, and the Russian president, Vladmir Putin. “Relations with Italy have always been good” he says.
Oliviero Valoti, health director of this temporary hospital acknowledges early concerns about the Russian presence, from a medical perspective. “We were worried about language barrier issues and also cultural issues. In reality I must say that they have proved very efficient. They have aligned themselves perfectly with our approach, both from the therapeutic standpoint and from the clinical management of patients.”
Stepping across the wide corridor that separates the different sectors of the hospital, Valoti, an anaesthetist , talks admiringly about the ventilators flown in from Moscow on Russian cargo planes: “All the equipment in there consists of respirators donated by the Russian contingent. These are respirators that do not exist in the west. We have evaluated and used them, they are of the highest quality. They are extremely useful in intensive care.”
Guido Marinoni, president of the order of Bergamo doctors, contrasts the Russian intervention with EU solidarity. “Russian military doctors work at the [field] hospital. Albanians, Cubans, Chinese doctors came too. But Germans didn’t come, the French and Americans didn’t come. This might make one think. It’s not as if there was no coronavirus in China and in Russia.”
In fact 44 critically ill patients were airlifted by the Germany military from Bergamo to hospitals with spare capacity in North Rhine Westphalia and Saxony, although the patient transfer scheme began after the Russians’ arrival. Germany also supplied Italy with ventilators while at least eight other EU governments provided protective equipment.
Within the wards at the field hospital the patients are mostly male, many elderly and a few under thirty.
Mauro Poleni, a 27-year-old technician from Paladina, was transferred here on 11 April. “At the beginning it was a bit strange. I thought it would be difficult to communicate with [the Russians], but the interpreters are good. They intervened promptly when I had a fever of 40”.
Infection rates and hospital admissions in Bergamo are now falling, and the city’s youth are eager to resume their lives and jobs when lockdown is eased on 4 May. But traumatised by the losses in the city and villages of the surrounding valleys – officially the province of a million people lost 2,700 people, but the real toll is estimated to be closer to 5,000 – many older people remain wary.
Dr Marinoni expresses a similar concern about resuming as before: “If we do not make sure that a gradual return is accompanied by a control of the infectious capacity of people going back to work, we are in dramatic danger of this taking off again”.