Misused photo of migrants’ coffins used to cast doubt on Covid-19 in Italy

·4-min read

In recent weeks, sceptics have been circulating a photo online as proof that the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic in Italy has been exaggerated. The photo in question actually shows the victims of a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa in 2013. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Covid-19 death toll in Italy during the first wave of the pandemic was extremely high.

The photo in question, which actually shows the coffins of migrants who drowned in a tragic shipwreck off the Italian coast, was wrongly included in the trailer for a documentary about the pandemic by Simona Ventura called “The Seven Days of Bergamo”, which the director posted on Facebook on August 23, 2021. The documentary, which was screened at the 2021 Venice Film Festival, is about the people who died from Covid-19 when it swept through the northern Italian town in March 2020. The photo appears 46 seconds into the trailer, followed by other images showing pandemic victims.

A montage featuring the photo has also been circulating on Facebook, like in this post from December 27. In the montage, a colour filter has been added to the photo as well as a label explaining that this photo was used out of context.

The caption explains that the photo shows the victims of a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa in 2013, not victims of the Covid-19 pandemic in Bergamo, Italy.

The montage has been circulating on Facebook and Twitter in French, English and Italian, like in this post from December 29, 2021.

Some of the captions claim that the misuse of this image is proof that the dangerousness of the virus has been exaggerated or invented.

This post from December 31, 2021, for example, says: “In this Covid operation, everything is false!”

This photo shows migrants who died in a shipwreck and has been wrongly connected to the Covid-19 pandemic

If you carry out a reverse image search (click here to find out how) using the free online tool InVid WeVerify, then you can pull up the original photo. It was taken by Alberto Pizzoli, a photographer with the press agency AFP, on October 5, 2013.

In reality, this photo shows the bodies of refugees who died in a shipwreck off the island of Lampedusa on October 3, 2013. More than 360 migrants, most of them Eritrean or Somali, died in this tragedy. The boat was carrying about 500 people hoping to reach Europe.

“This image was taken in Lampedusa on October 5, 2013,” photographer Alberto Pizzoli told fact-checking unit AFP Fact Check. "I was there and I remember that place, an airport hangar.”

So there was, indeed, an error in the documentary trailer. The trailer featuring the wrongly attributed photo was taken down from YouTube and director Ventura replaced the trailer on her Facebook page with a second version on August 24, 2021. The photo of the Lampedusa victims has been replaced with another image, this one showing a morgue during the crisis in Bergamo.

A photo used to cast doubt on the dangerous reality of the Covid-19 pandemic

Our team did a quick search on social media and discovered that this photo has been wrongly used to illustrate victims of the Covid pandemic since it first began.

Italian fact-checking site NeXt Quotidiano was perhaps the first site to report on the misuse of the photo, back in March 2020. But the verification backfired and the story of the photo’s misuse was picked up by social media accounts championing the idea that Covid-19 isn’t deadly and that the number of deaths from the virus has been exaggerated.

The montage first appeared on social media in May 2020.

In March 2020, the town of Bergamo was hit hard by the first wave of Covid. So many people died that the city’s mortuary services were overwhelmed and they had to use military trucks to transport coffins to other cities in northern Italy.

This report from FRANCE 24 at the time shows a priest in Bergamo blessing coffins containing the bodies of Covid-19 victims.

This photo shows a curate blessing the coffins of 90 Covid-19 victims at the San Giuseppe church in Seriate, a town near Bergamo. The picture was taken by a photographer with the Italian photo agency Independent Photo Agency on March 28, 2020.

More than 138,000 people have died of Covid-19 in Italy since the start of the pandemic.

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