Amnesty International has called for an independent parliamentary investigation into deaths from COVID-19 in Italian nursing homes.
Nursing homes in Italy, as elsewhere in Europe, the US and beyond, have seen a significant share of COVID-19 deaths, and prosecutors in various places have opened criminal investigations into whether the deaths could have been avoided.
Amnesty interviewed 34 health workers, as well as union leaders and lawyers in Italy, and found reports of retaliation against nursing home staff who spoke out about unsafe conditions there.
A third of the workers “expressed concern about a climate of fear and retaliation in their workplace,” according to an NGO statement released on Friday.
Italy was the first country in the West to be affected by the coronavirus outbreak and soon found itself critically short of protective gear, masks and hospital beds, particularly in the worst-hit Lombardy region.
During the first wave of contagion, many residents of care centers for the elderly in Lombardy were not even taken to the hospital because there was no place for them.
In addition to the high cost of nursing home residents, Amnesty said that some employees who complained about the lack of protective equipment or expressed other concerns about unsafe working conditions at the facilities were subjected to disciplinary procedures.
One case cited by Amnesty concerned the suspension of Pietro La Grassa, a union representative at the Pio Albergo Trivulzio nursing home in Milan, the largest in Italy.
Italian prosecutors opened a criminal investigation at Trivulzio’s home after La Grassa and a handful of doctors and employees raised the alarm about the high death toll early in the outbreak. Some alleged that managers had told them not to wear masks for fear of scaring residents, a charge that management denied.
Milan prosecutors recently decided to close their Trivulzio investigation without filing any charges, Italian news agency ANSA reported on Oct. 18.
La Grassa was ordered to be reinstated in his post by a Milan court in December 2020.
Overall, the death toll among nursing home residents is unknown as residents were not assessed early in the outbreak and suspected COVID-19 deaths are not listed in Italy’s official tally. Italy’s Higher Institute of Health found that at least 9,154 people died in nursing homes from February to May 2020, but that survey was based on partial responses to a voluntary survey of a quarter of the estimated 4,600 nursing homes in Italy. .
Italy limits the scope of the investigation
Amnesty’s call for a parliamentary investigation follows a decision by lawmakers in July to greatly limit the scope of a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the pandemic to simply look at events prior to January 30, 2020, when the government declared the state of emergency and suspended flights to and from China.
As a result, the Italian investigation will not consider the actual outbreak in Italy or how it was handled there, as the first locally transmitted case was only confirmed in northern Lombardy in late February.
Just last week, relatives of the victims launched an online petition for Parliament to return to the original scope of an investigation into the causes of the outbreak and actions taken by the government and the World Health Organization to try to limit it.
Aside from that, consumer rights group Codacons has been collecting data on behalf of relatives of people who died in nursing homes and has turned over the information to prosecutors.
If those cases ever go to trial, family members could join the prosecution as injured parties in the civil portion of the case.
Furthermore, a class action lawsuit against the government, the health ministry and the Lombardy region, filed on behalf of some 500 relatives of the victims, has started in the civil court of Rome.
The only other major criminal investigation is being carried out by prosecutors in the Bergamo province, who are looking into Italy’s readiness and whether a delayed shutdown there helped fuel the contagion.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism