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Our Top Stories from 2020 How conflict-zone documentary maker took on filming Covid-19 in Italy epicentre

The stories we brought you in 2020. Meet the filmmaker who wanted to show the reality of what was happening on the frontline in the fight against the deadly disease in Lombardy, which was the worst hit area in Italy.

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Northern Italy was at the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year

Northern Italy was at the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year

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Northern Italy was at the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year

FRANCESCA Tosarelli is an award-winning documentary maker used to working in conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa – but the biggest story of her career unfolded on her own doorstep.

Francesca had returned to her home in northern Italy from Baghdad – where she was filming a new documentary – last December and was making arrangements to return to the war-torn city when she suddenly found herself at the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic.

It was early March and the country was going into lockdown and TV stations were broadcasting images of empty streets. “I was feeling there was a part of the narrative that was missing. The only thing we were seeing at that point was empty streets and people with masks,” she recalls of the early days of the pandemic.

Francesca wanted to show the reality of what was happening on the frontline in the fight against the deadly disease in Lombardy, which was the worst hit area in Italy.

Despite the potential dangers, she joined frontline ambulance workers with the Red Cross who were struggling to cope with the overwhelming numbers of those struck by the virus.

And she went behind the scenes in the over-worked intensive care units where doctors had to decide who to save and who was beyond treatment.

Her footage from the frontline was broadcast on television stations around the world and served as a chilling warning to other nations of what awaited them if they didn’t act quickly.

“I joined the Red Cross in Alzano Lombardo. It’s a very small town that should have been registered as a red zone but wasn’t. This is why Lombardy became the epicentre very quickly,” she told the Sunday World.

“When the people arrived at the hospital in Lombardy they were at that time in March at the last stage. That is why there has been a tragedy there.

”Francesa was told the safety measures she had to follow and then went out with the ambulance workers. “We were told how to dress, undress, use body suits, goggles, disinfect the cameras and cars – then we started following them.

”The footage she captured showed people struggling to breathe in their homes as worried family members said their goodbyes before those infected were taken to hospital. There were harrowing shots of those who had been intubated in intensive care as well as grieving family members coming to terms with the deaths of their loved ones.

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Francesca Tosarelli in the ICU of the Hospital Papa Giovanni XXIII, Bergamo during a shooting for her documentary

Francesca Tosarelli in the ICU of the Hospital Papa Giovanni XXIII, Bergamo during a shooting for her documentary

Francesca Tosarelli in the ICU of the Hospital Papa Giovanni XXIII, Bergamo during a shooting for her documentary

Despite wearing the protective gear she could only spend 10 minutes at a time inside an infected person’s home.

She said she was very conscious of the fact she was going into the homes of people who were very sick, and in some cases dying, but the people and their families wanted her to get the message out there.

“They seemed to understand immediately the importance of getting this message out. They understood we were a few weeks in front of most of the world.

”Heart-breaking scenes filmed by Francesca show family members saying goodbye to loved ones as they are taken away in an ambulance. “I was inside houses where they knew the goodbye from the daughter to the mother was probably the last one,” she said. “It was very difficult. It always hits you later on.

When you’re shooting, the camera is often a filter. You are inside emerged in the situation. The feelings come later on. ”Another scene inside a hospital shows a doctor receiving a phone call from the daughter of a woman who died the previous day and having to break the news to her that her mother was dead.

The doctor explained that the only contact the hospital had for the woman’s family was her husband’s mobile but he wasn’t answering. They found out he wasn’t answering because he was also in hospital extremely ill with coronavirus.

Francesca stayed in contact with the families in the homes she visited and they are happy she got the message out to the world.

“I got a little closer with the relatives and got their phone numbers.

“Weeks later, I got back in touch with them and went back to visit them and see how they were. It started a close relationship.

“There were not the usual barriers I can have if I work abroad. I’m still in contact with all the relatives. Some of them are good because their loved ones came back and others are missing those who have gone.

“Of course, a big number of relatives went on to test positive themselves.

”She finished filming and went into quarantine in early May as a precaution as she had been embedded with frontline workers. She said thankfully she tested negative as did an intensive care doctor she was filming as part of another documentary she is currently editing.

The first wave has peaked in Italy and some restrictions have been lifted but Francesca said they are not out of the woods yet. “Some people are just going back and don’t really care about being in big groups or taking precautions. It is very common in the big cities in the north to see squares full of people.”

“But many people are taking their time to get back to normality. I think it’s because of a responsible approach.

“I am having difficulties as well. I’m always thinking about the second wave. I’ve been surrounded by people mourning people who are dead.”

She said relatives of the dead are now looking for someone to blame for the crisis. The increasing privatisation of healthcare in the region is a particular hot topic. “There are a lot of reports and inquiries.

“There is anger, of course. There are already Facebook groups of people who have lost relatives and they’re organising together looking to bring court cases.

“I have the hope that this tragedy in Lombardy will lead to better understanding of how important the public system is.”

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