A health worker checks an elderly woman’s oxygen level, after receiving a call about a suspected COVID-19 case, in the northern Italian province of Bergamo.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
April 16, 2020 10:42 AM EDT

It wasn’t long after my ­arrival at the hospital in Brescia that I smelled something I know too well. I have smelled it many times working as a photo­journalist in conflict zones.

I do not ­actually know if it is the smell of death or the smell of a sterilizing product or something like a mix of both. It is a smell I am not used to when I hear ­people around me speaking my language, Italian.

Blue light from an ambulance, responding to a caller with suspected symptoms, in the hard-hit province of Bergamo.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME

A security guard tells me I am in front of the wrong entrance, then backs away. I am perceived as dangerous: he thinks I am ill and looking to be hospitalized, like the many people who arrive here every day.

From a distance, I cannot hear what he is saying to me behind his mask. Every word is audibly distorted beyond recognition.

An emergency room set up in a tent outside the Ospedali Riuniti Padova Sud in Monselice, near Padua.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
Beds in a COVID-19 unit are filled at a hospital in Brescia.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
Doctors and nurses treat a suspected COVID-19 patient who arrived to Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital in Bergamo with breathing problems.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME

When I am no longer considered a threat, I am taken to a room with about 20 beds. I am wearing a cap, protective coveralls and glasses, and shoe coverings. I hear a sibilant whirring sound. It is the oxygen, they tell me.

Each of the patients’ heads looks as though it is enclosed in a glass ball. I cannot tell if these people are conscious, until a man instinctively tries to touch his face but is unable to do so.

Linda, a nurse coordinator in the COVID-19 ward at Santa Maria delle Croci hospital in Ravenna.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
Discolored obituary portraits at the printing plant of L'Eco di Bergamo in Erbusco; the newspaper dedicated more pages to accommodate the death toll.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME

Above the beds, you can see their names and dates of birth. Often, it seemed as if the eldest of our country were being targeted by the coronavirus. But here is a man my age, 37. I am not immune.

I look around to take some pictures, but there is nothing I want to capture. I do so anyway, to try and justify my presence in this place to others. To justify it to myself. I want to believe that it is important for history. But what history will this story teach us?

Francesco, an anesthesiologist tasked with sedating and intubating patients, at the Santa Maria delle Croci hospital in Ravenna.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
Don Renzo, the parson of Ospedali Riuniti Padova Sud in Monselice, near Padua.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
A hearse driver outside a cemetery in Bergamo awaits information about the next destination.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME

I did not think much about the virus emerging in China when I heard about it in January. It was only after it had spread to Italy, and the northern region of Lombardy became the European epicenter, that I realized how protected we can feel in our small ­bubble — and what happens when that protection shatters.

The pandemic shows us that all of us are closer and more connected than we think.

An empty Piazza del Duomo in Milan. The city was included in the early March lockdown of much of Italy's north, before the restrictions on movement were instituted nationwide.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
Armed forces outside the Colosseum, one of Rome's top attractions.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
An emergency worker is disinfected after an ambulance brought a suspected COVID-19 patient to the hospital in Parma.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
In Piacenza, a military field hospital was constructed to accommodate dozens of COVID-19 cases.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
An undertaker and a young family member accompany a coffin at a cemetery in Bergamo. While funerals are prohibited, few close family members can accompany a coffin during the burial.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME

The purpose of this trip was to tell the story of how, in just a few weeks, Italy had become unrecognizable.

By the time I crossed the border into Lombardy on March 13, hundreds were dead. By mid-April, more than 20,000 people had lost their lives.

In Venice, a gondola is illuminated along a canal.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
A stall in the Mercato Centrale, where many shops are closed, in Florence.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
A walkway typically filled with shoppers is deserted in Venice.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
St. Mark’s Square, normally bustling with tourists, sits empty.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
A closed coffee shop in St. Mark's Square.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME

I visited towns ravaged by the virus, small and large. In Seriate, I saw coffins laid in rows on the floor of a chapel. In Nembro, a town of 11,000 where local volunteers told me more than 120 people had died by the time I visited, residents were making their own face masks in the back of a factory, then distributing them to others, free of charge.

In Ravenna and other places, I witnessed firsthand the bravery of our doctors and nurses, many of whom have sacrificed their lives to treat the unwell. I saw them sweat and toil, and I saw them cry for lost colleagues. Every day they work, it is a double shift.

The Tower of Pisa in March. Tourist attractions remain closed across Italy due to the pandemic.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
A statue inside a church, which can house up to 80 coffins, in Seriate.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
Due to the lockdown, people were barred from entering St. Peter's Square when Pope Francis delivered the Urbi et Orbi ("To the City and to the World") blessing on March 27.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
I wonder every day if the infection will arrive. Every day, I check my blood oxygen level. Pulse oximeters, thermometers, masks and hand sanitizers have become almost impossible to find.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME

I also went to our busiest cities, to see how they had become semi­deserted shells of themselves. From the empty Piazza del Duomo in Milan to St. Mark’s Square in Venice, the lawn near the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the streets around the Colosseum in Rome, the throngs of tourists had disappeared.

Instead, you could see police, the armed forces, traffic wardens, various Italian ambulances and hearses, coming and going steadily.

After an assessment by health workers on the outskirts of Piacenza, an elderly woman experiencing COVID-19 symptoms is taken to a hospital. Her daughter, a nun, helps the rescuers.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
The woman's empty bed after emergency workers took her to the hospital.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
A son hugs his father before the older man, a suspected case of COVID-19, is hospitalized in Piacenza.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
A woman suspected of having contracted COVID-19 waits for emergency workers to take her to a hospital in Piacenza.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
At a hospital in Parma, a coffin is prepared to be moved to a crematorium or cemetery.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME

The silence in the city squares scared me. For Italians, la piazza symbolizes our culture and our social life. It’s where we go to be together. Now, there is no noise at all. How do you photograph silence?

I’ve heard this called a “war” — that we are in the “trenches,” and medical workers on the “front lines.” My friends from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen ask how I am and how my family is doing — and not, for once, the other way round.

But to me, this is no war. There are no sides, and there is no alternative to victory. We will only overcome this virus if we do it together.

Workers produce face masks at Prada’s factory in Montone.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
Rolls of newsprint are stored inside one of Italy's largest newspaper printing centers in Erbusco, east of Bergamo.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME
Dozens of coffins inside an empty church in Seriate, near Bergamo.
Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos for TIME

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