When fellow foreigners in Italy first began asking us whether they’d be able to get vaccinated against Covid-19, it used to be easy to reassure them.
Of course, we’d reply to the anxious emails: Italy says everyone who wants a vaccine should get one, wherever they’re from and whatever their immigration status.
The Italian government hasn’t gone back on that commendable principle, the same one that makes all essential healthcare available to everyone in Italy.
But four months into the country’s vaccination programme, as more and more people become eligible – in theory – for a shot, international residents are discovering that having the right to care doesn’t always translate into getting it.
Now the question we receive from readers isn’t whether they can get vaccinated, but how.
Many people hit a hurdle as soon as they go to book a jab: the websites that regional health services are using to manage appointments almost always ask for the number of a valid Italian health card, or tessera sanitaria, that shows you’re enrolled in the public health system. Even upon calling the booking helpline, we’ve heard from people who reach an automated message or are simply told no: no tessera sanitaria, no vaccine.
There are plenty of reasons why someone might not be able to produce a health card, not least the difficulty of obtaining documents in a year-long pandemic and a country where most administrative matters require at least one trip to an office.
But foreign residents are more likely to have trouble getting one. Italian nationals (and their immediate family members) are entitled to enrol in the national health service for free whatever their circumstances, while foreign nationals have to meet certain conditions or pay an annual fee somewhere between €400 and €3,000 – if they’re allowed to sign up at all.
In many cases foreigners’ access to healthcare depends on where they live: since Italy’s national health service is in fact made up of 20 regional ones, all largely independent, you can be charged a different amount to enrol from region to region, while some say you’re not eligible if you have private insurance (Veneto) or do not allow other EU nationals to pay to opt in at all (Umbria).
In fact, EU and non-EU residents alike who aren’t working or studying here – notably retirees in the age groups who should be getting vaccinated first – will have encountered a healthcare Catch-22 as soon as they arrived: to register as a legal resident, Italy requires foreign nationals to show they have access to healthcare. Yet to enrol for access to healthcare, you have to be a registered resident.
The solution that many people settle on is to take out a private insurance policy that will satisfy the bureaucrats at the local registry office. But that doesn’t do you much good when a pandemic hits and vaccines are only available via the public health system.
It’s understandable, even admirable, that Italy insists on keeping Covid-19 vaccines a public service rather than a private one. It’s just as understandable that vaccinating some 53 million adults comes with immense logistical challenges. It’s not like the programme is going smoothly even for people with all the paperwork, after all.
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The barriers that people without a health card are running into are almost certainly a simple oversight. One of the most striking emails The Local received about this matter was an exasperated message forwarded from a health service employee in Umbria: writing to a colleague on behalf of an international resident, he pointed out that his office had had several inquiries from foreigners who, despite living in Italy legally, find themselves unable to register with the Italian health service.
“I hope that the Region will soon give indications… They need to be included on the Covid vaccination lists and obviously not being registered with the national health service they will probably never be able to book,” he wrote. (Umbria is understood to be reviewing its policy on opting in to the health service; residents are advised to keep contacting their local health authority to express their interest.)
But even sympathetic officials are hamstrung by a rigid administrative process. The staff in charge of assigning appointments have to cross the Ts and dot the Is – and rightly so, given the outcry over i furbetti del vaccino, the ‘vaccine cheats’ who wangle their way to the front of the line.
Yet foreign residents aren’t trying to skip the queue. The people we’ve heard from are eligible for vaccination by age, and they’re not asking for anything that Italy hasn’t already promised: “all people will be vaccinated who are present on the Italian territory”, as the Italian medicines agency AIFA’s guidelines state.
Some official instructions from AIFA or other government bodies would go a long way. The British Embassy told The Local in March that further information on the process of booking a shot without a health card “is due to be made available”; to date, we’re still waiting.
It turns out that whether foreigners can get vaccinated in Italy and how they can get vaccinated are in fact the same question, and if the answer to the second is ‘we don’t know’, then the answer to the first is effectively ‘no’, or at least ‘not yet’.
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And that outcome is worse for everyone. Researchers at the Italian National Institute of Health studied the differences between Covid-19 cases in Italians and foreign nationals in Italy in the first five months of the pandemic: they found that, compared to Italian cases, non-Italian cases were diagnosed later, were more likely to result in admission to hospital and intensive care, and in cases involving people from countries low on the Human Development Index, had a higher risk of death.
The study, published in the European Journal of Public Health, highlighted “informal barriers” such as language, bureaucracy, or legal, cultural and social factors, as well as economic pressures to keep working, as some of the possible reasons why foreigners don’t always seek or receive healthcare as soon as they need it. Delaying a diagnosis increases the chances that the disease worsens and gives it more opportunities to spread.
“Removing healthcare access barriers and reinforcing communication are, therefore, essential to control SARS-CoV-2 transmission, preserve health services and improve the health outcomes of all people living in the same country, regardless of nationality,” the researchers wrote.
Italy must apply to Covid-19 vaccinations the lesson it has learned from Covid-19 tests: the more people who can get one, and easily, the safer we all are.
Find information about how to register for vaccination in your region of Italy here.