OPINION: Covid passports are Italy’s only choice – but they must be a right, not a privilege

The problem with Italy's extended health passport isn't civil liberty or Covid-19 vaccines – it's the fact that Italian bureaucracy is preventing people from getting them, writes British-Italian journalist Adriana Urbano.

OPINION: Covid passports are Italy's only choice - but they must be a right, not a privilege
Protests against Italy’s ‘green pass’ vaccine passport at Milan’s Piazza Duomo on July 24th. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

The Beatles famously sang ‘All You Need Is Love’, but I am starting to think all you really need is the threat of a miserable summer. 

In the 24 hours after Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi announced the expansion of the use of the so-called ‘Green Pass’ in Italy, over half a million Italian residents stormed regional vaccination booking systems. In Lazio the website crashed. Friuli-Venezia-Giulia saw the highest increase, with demand for a jab jumping by 6,000 percent. 

The health pass will certify that holders are either immunised, recovered or tested for Covid-19. Not having it means being barred from indoor eateries, cinemas, gyms, museums, conferences and much more from August 6th. 

EXPLAINED: When, where and why will you need a Covid health passport in Italy?

PM Draghi was clear: the green pass is the only alternative to lockdowns. With the highly infectious Delta variant becoming dominant in Italy, there is no time to waste. 

The aim is clear: curb the spread of the virus, prevent hospitals from being swamped and stave off the virus from evolving into a potentially more dangerous strain. To quote Draghi: “An invitation not to get vaccinated is an invitation to die, or to let others die.”

The announcement set off a predictable wave of dissent.

Navigating the cacophony of vaccine resistance in Italy is like wading through a quagmire. If Dante were still alive, he would create a new circle of hell for the vitriol spewed on social media. 

READ ALSO:  How big is Italy’s anti-vax movement really?

Protests sprang up all over Italy, with many taking place over the last weekend. Some of the largest events were in Rome and Turin, where respectively 3,000 and 5,000 people protested.

In Florence things turned ugly quickly: Fanpage journalist Saverio Tommasi, widely known for his humane video reports, was repeatedly attacked and insulted by protesters, who damaged his camera. The police had to intervene.

The hashtag “health dictatorship” trended on Twitter. The green pass was compared to the Star of David that Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis. Liliana Segre, Holocaust survivor and an Italian senator for life, described the inane comparisons as “folly” and “ignorance”.

Anti-Green Pass protestors in Rome compare themselves to victims of the Holocaust. Photo by Andreas SOLARO/AFP

Things don’t seem to be better in France, where the number of protestors at anti-health passport demonstrations has increased since the French government announced a similar scheme.

Though the debate in Italy has taken terrifying turns, reports show there are actually relatively few anti-vaxxers here. 

A July 2021 report by ResPOnsE Covid-19, a project run by the SPS Trend laboratory at the University of Milan, highlighted that only 5 percent of Italians are against getting the shot, down from 12 percent in December 2020. A total of 85 percent of Italians are pro-jab, and half of the individuals surveyed are in favour of making it compulsory. 

Unpacking vaccine skepticism in Italy means delving into a cocktail of different factors, ranging from widespread lack of faith in authorities, uneven educational attainment, unreliable information, and a questionable understanding of personal freedom.

However, not all unvaccinated people fall under the violent ‘No-Vax’ umbrella. Many are yet to be vaccinated because they are hesitant, whereas others are struggling to access the shot.

As in many other countries, the pandemic has laid bare complex structural failings: the green pass is yet another opportunity for these issues to rear their ugly heads.

OPINION: Bureaucratic barriers must not stop Italy vaccinating its foreign residents

An Italian Red Cross volunteer on duty at a vaccination centre in Rome. Photo: Tiziana FABI/AFP

Poor quality information on the pandemic is a key player. Many Italian contacts have told me ‘non so più a chi credere’ (‘I no longer know who to believe’), expressing exhaustion and confusion, especially after the chaos surrounding potential side effects of the AstraZeneca jab.

The Italian public’s distrust towards the media is also fuelled by it being historically constrained by political interest – Italy has often been classified as having only “partial freedom of press” by the watchdog Freedom House. Needless to say, nothing justifies attacks against journalists. 

To make matters worse, anti-vax campaigns In Italy are an old problem, with fake news on childhood vaccinations long running rampant.  

Addressing the causes of vaccine-resistance here will take years – time we do not have.

The hesitant need to be handled sensitively. But we cannot indulge the idea that doubts rooted in unscientific views are a valid concern when they could spell disaster for the health of so many people. Nor can we promote an idea of freedom that curtails the safety – and liberty – of those who cannot, for whatever reason, receive the life-preserving jab.

Furthermore, another wave of lockdowns would be a terrible blow for a battered Italian economy, hitting the most vulnerable within society. By the end of 2020, the worst hit were short-term workers, the young, the self-employed and women, who account for the majority of jobs lost during the pandemic.

The green pass is a much-needed compromise to re-open the country as safely as possible and stem the trauma and loss that has shattered Italy and beyond.

However, for some, getting the shot is a challenge. A campaign launched by NGO Action Aid highlighted how 300,000 people in Italy are struggling to be registered as residents – a bureaucratic caveat that hinders access to services such as health care, a significant obstacle for vaccination. 

READ ALSO: ‘Be tenacious as hell’: How people in Italy have managed to get vaccinated without a health card

The NGO Emergency had to step in to vaccinate foreign farm labourers in Sicily, who play an important part in the agricultural sector. According to Emergency organiser Ahmedi Echi, there are approximately half a million “invisible people” who were not given the right to access the shot. 

The real question here is who is slipping through the cracks – and how to stop this.

Whether it be social exclusion or legal discrimination, the green pass makes sense only when the shot is truly accessible to all. 

A vaccination centre near Turin. Photo: Marco BERTORELLO/AFP

Even those who can access the shot are experiencing worrying issues.

The vaccine rollout ran at different speeds across the country – meaning many younger people are yet to receive their first shot. Others who are vaccinated but do not have an Italian health card are struggling to download their pass

However, obtaining a healthcare card is also a challenge – something The Local has covered in depth. It involves navigating Italian bureaucracy during a pandemic, with public offices working in fits and starts. For some, caught between the dilemmas of bureaucracy, enrolling has been nigh impossible. 

The introduction of the green pass will also be a test for Italian bureaucracy. So far, it is not looking good.

By the time you read this I will have received my second shot. I consider it a privilege. Not only will I be protected from serious illness and damage to my organs, but I will be part of an armour shielding the most vulnerable in society. 

That is freedom. And it should not be a privilege.

Adriana Urbano is a British-Italian multimedia journalist and editor. She is currently based in Florence.

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OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

In a country as attached to the car as Italy, what would it take to get more people to use greener transport? Silvia Marchetti looks at what’s behind the country’s high levels of car ownership.

OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

Many foreigners I speak to are shocked by the ‘car first’ mentality that rules in Italy, and by Italians’ degree of addiction to any wheeled vehicle. 

There’s practically one car around for each Italian. Between 2010-2020 the population dropped but there were three million more cars on the roads, despite soaring living costs and falling salaries. 

Italy’s rate of car ownership is the second-highest in Europe after tiny Luxembourg. All Italian regions have a lot of cars running but surprisingly, the number of passenger cars which is the highest at EU level can be found in the Alpine regions of Valle D’Aosta and the northern autonomous province of Trento, where particular regional statutes envisage special tax incentives helping locals to buy new cars.

Most Italians just don’t like walking. They aren’t active travelers who’d opt for a bike, and can’t go even 500 meters without a wheeled vehicle, be it a Jeep, motorbike, Vespa or motorino. 

But it’s not really their fault. People in Italy haven’t been educated on eco-friendly modes of transport, simply because infrastructure like bike lanes, pedestrian paths, high-speed trains, efficient trams, subways and buses are rather lacking. And there aren’t many walkable pavements in cities, let alone in old villages. So the car is Italians’ second home. 

READ ALSO: These are the most (and least) eco-friendly towns in Italy

There’s an historical reason for this, too. After the second world war, during the economic boom when Italy finally rose from the ashes of the defeat, owning a cinquecento or maggiolino was a status symbol. In the 1960s my father would squeeze eight friends into his cinquino and drive around all night, sharing the fuel cost. Then the car fad turned into a frenzy, and now it’s an obsession.

Iconic Italian car and motorbike models fuelled a post-war fad – which has become an obsession. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Whenever I need to go somewhere far from my house I wish I could do the entire trip by public transport and ditch my car, so as to avoid having parking problems too. I remember once when I was at university there was this huge party near the Colosseum, I drove around for an hour looking for a parking spot and eventually I gave up, went back home really frustrated. 

Car sharing also is something totally foreign to Italians. You just need to look around in the morning at rush hour to see that there’s just one person per car, which is totally unsustainable climate-wise.

READ ALSO: Rome ‘among worst cities in Europe’ for road safety, traffic and pollution

Even in areas like Milan, where public transport is more efficient than in the southern regions, people still stick to their car or motorino which just proves how it’s a matter of mentality rather than of transport provision. 

On the other hand, if I want to visit Tuscany or Umbria from my house in Rome’s northern countryside, there aren’t even any direct connections.

My Italian millennial friends refuse to take a bus or tram to the gelateria a few blocks away from their home – the car is the rule, and they don’t care if they risk a fine for double parking, or parking in front of a building entrance. Forget walking, it just isn’t ‘done’.

Italy will soon invest some €600 million in projects aimed at improving bike and pedestrian lanes under initiatives funded by the PNRR, but the mindset of drivers must also modernize for all this money to be really effective. 

OPINION: Why cycling in Rome isn’t as crazy as it sounds

Italy needs an information campaign to raise awareness of environmental and health issues, and this must start inside schools and continue in college. Families also should educate kids to healthier transport modes, and stop buying those ‘micro cars’ when they’re 13 which don’t require a driver’s license. 

I often ask myself what it would take to get Italians – but also other nationalities – out of their cars, or off their noisy motorino with illegal upgrades that make a hell of a noise. Rising oil prices haven’t done the miracle in making car ownership unaffordable. 

Hiking car prices would kill the industry, so the only way is to give tax breaks or incentives to families who keep just one car and manage to share it, or raise taxes if each family member has one. 

Perhaps in a very remote future, interconnected green transport from the doorstep to the destination might be the solution, but at the moment that’s science fiction.