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17 January 2022updated 19 Jan 2022 4:18pm

Ahead of the presidential election, Italians are divided on the unvaccinated

After 40 years, I become an Italian citizen and find my compatriots obsessed with Covid passes.

By Tim Parks

Just how toxic can conversation get? In recent years I have frequently rejoiced that living in Italy spared me the poisonous Brexit divide. Then Covid brought us the “green pass” and all too soon old friends were falling out. Every meeting was a potential quarrel, electrified by the Italian tendency to see all issues in terms of belonging and exclusion. “LET’S GET GOING AGAIN IN SAFETY” announces the government’s green pass website. The pass “keeps citizens safer at work, school and in many daily activities”. But which citizens, and how?

The pass was initially proposed by the EU in that distant time when it was supposed that vaccinated people could not transmit the virus. You would be able to move from one country to the other if double vaccinated. Alternatively you could have a pass for 48 hours with a negative test. But once installed on our phones, the notorious QR code offered all kinds of fascinating possibilities. In August Italy made the pass a requirement to get into restaurants, cafés, museums, cinemas, concert halls and football stadiums. “The measure will bring serenity,” Prime Minister Draghi promised. On holiday in Puglia, my daughter was barred from the campsite café, the hub of her friends’ activities. She had been vaccinated, but the pass does not become active until 15 days after the jab. I missed an evening of Mozart when my phone battery died in the queue outside the concert hall.

In October the pass was extended to workplaces and universities, while hospital staff and teachers had to prove they were vaccinated. “If it means they don’t keep closing classes down,” enthused my headmaster friend, “I’m for it.” But protests began and positions hardened. A five-day week for an unvaccinated person means three tests, each costing €15 at the pharmacy. Anti-vaxxers felt united in grievance. The major newspapers and broadcasters appeared solidly behind Mario Draghi’s government. Any serious voice of dissent was met with ridicule. 

The popular historian Alessandro Barbero, himself vaccinated, signed a petition against the green pass requirement for university students. Dante, he claimed (and no Italian argument is complete until Dante has been invoked), would put the government among the hypocrites in the eighth circle of the Inferno, because ministers insisted there was no mandatory vaccination, “except that you can’t live without it”. Major newspapers published ad hominem attacks against Barbero, who was their darling until the day before. A professor friend admitted he was ashamed he hadn’t signed the petition, but he was up for promotion and it would put him in a bad light. An unvaccinated mother told me other parents had excluded her child from their playgroup. 

By now it was no longer possible to deny that vaccinated people could contract and pass on the virus too. So the government introduced a new rule that if you test positive, your pass is suspended. In late October came the first indication that while pass requirements had initially led to a blip in vaccinations, this had now plateaued. The unvaccinated, less than 10 per cent of the population, were digging in. Many seemed transformed into missionaries of a sect. Undeterred, Prime Minister Draghi extended the pass requirement to trains, metro, buses and trams. My headmaster friend changed his position. Two of his classes had been sent home and he had to dismiss three excellent teachers because they refused to be vaccinated. A lose-lose situation.

In early December the “super green pass” was announced, available only to those with proof of vaccination or recent recovery, not after a negative test. An ordinary green pass would do for public transport, but the super version would be required for restaurants, gyms, museums, concerts etc. “Isn’t it fantastic,” a friend told me as we raised our glasses at a meal, “to know for sure that there are no anti-vaxxers in here!” The unvaccinated are pariahs. It is legitimate, even a duty – certainly a pleasure – to despise them. To feel united against them. Corriere della Sera kept up its barrage of accounts of anti-vaxxers dying of Covid. Deathbed repentance is especially appreciated. “Anti-vaxx father refuses ventilation. Watch son’s tearful video call to convince him,” is a typical item. 

Any number of ordinary Italians now find themselves with serious policing duties. Some café owners scan you at the door. Others ask you to leave your phone unlocked on the table. Some are apologetic, calling you politely by the name that comes up on their screens. Others relish this new power. At Milan’s Museo del Risorgimento, a particularly suspicious woman demanded to see some identification. How could a “Parks Timothy Harold” possibly address her in decent Italian? I proudly whipped out my new ID, which says “Cittadinaza Ita”. After 40 years in the country, I belong.

The more essential the green pass became, the more crime prospered. In Ascoli Piceno, in central Italy, a doctor was arrested for pretending to vaccinate anti-vaxxers while in fact throwing the doses away. There were reports of parties where youngsters deliberately sought to contract the virus, since recovery means you receive a pass. Hospital doctors declared their exasperation with anti-vaxxers. Seriously ill anti-vaxxers started to arrive later and later for treatment because they were unsure of the reception they would get. Or they were simply pig-headed.

The word fascism was bandied about. This too is a staple of any Italian ruckus. For the mainstream media the fascists were the violent fringe at anti-green pass demonstrations. For those who loathe the pass, the fascists were the authoritarian majority excluding a minority from public life; the pass had become a symbol of submission to the regime.

In mid-December Draghi announced that a standard green pass, obtainable with a negative test, would no longer be enough for EU citizens to enter Italy. You must be vaccinated or have recovered, or accept quarantine. When the EU objected, Draghi pointed proudly to Italy’s low infection rate. Severity was paying off. Then days later winter arrived and Omicron exploded. There were 220,000 infections on the day I write and 294 dead. Numbers similar to the UK. The overall death rate per million people and the levels of vaccination are also similar to the UK. What has the pass achieved? At the start of January Draghi made vaccination obligatory for the over-50s and extended the green pass to shops, hairdressers, banks and post offices. Two infections in a secondary school class and any unvaccinated pupils will be condemned to distance learning. Whatever it takes! The fine for an over-50 “surprised without a pass”, as Corriere della Sera put it, is €100.

Mario Draghi. Will he become president? This really is the only other talking point in Italy today. Sergio Mattarella has reached the end of his seven-year mandate. On 24 January members of the House and Senate will begin the process of electing his successor by secret vote. Does it matter? In ordinary times an Italian president’s powers may seem little more than ceremonial. But potentially a president can choose the prime minister he wants, approve or reject legislation and even dissolve parliament. The ex-head of the European Central Bank, parachuted into the prime ministership in February 2021 to carry out the reforms the EU required of Italy to qualify for a €191bn Covid recovery package, Draghi seems the perfect candidate. He is not an MP and has no party affiliation. But, if he takes the job, who will keep the present ramshackle coalition together until the next elections in 2023? Some floated the idea that Draghi could continue to direct the government as president. At which others heard alarm bells. “Anyone who supposes the parties will have room for manoeuvre with Draghi as president,” observed the historian Ernesto Galli della Loggia, “is imagining the unimaginable.”

The conundrum goes to the heart of Italian democracy. What powers will political parties have when so many policy decisions now originate from Brussels and when a man from a European institution has been placed in a position of authority above them? What sense will the 2023 general election have, if we know Draghi will dictate policy anyway?

Is there another candidate? Silvio Berlusconi has made it clear he is interested. This is a man, remember, convicted of tax fraud in 2013 and famous for his “bunga bunga” sex parties which have led to any number of trials, two of which are ongoing. He is 85. Yet the same papers that delighted in Italy’s reputation for seriousness in the war against Covid say nothing of the disaster his election would mean for Italy’s standing in the world. Berlusconi remains an immensely wealthy padrone and a great distributor of expensive gifts. The former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of the Five Star Movement, the largest party in parliament, has said that now really is the moment to elect a woman as president. But he named no names. The nation waits with bated breath. 

At the first vote a two-thirds majority is required. From the fourth, 50 per cent plus one is enough. In 1971 Giovanni Leone was elected at the 23rd ballot. Meantime, to punish us for the high Covid infection rates, we have been ordered to wear masks in the open again, everywhere, and medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport. Required where it is of no use, “the mask is the new equivalent of the black shirt”, claims the philosopher Diego Fusaro. A friend texted to say he was ordered off a vaporetto for standing outside, alone, “the sea and wind in my face”, without an FFP2. And I must get a booster; the super green pass lapses after six months and my new citizenship risks becoming decidedly second class.

Tim Parks’s latest book is “The Hero’s Way: Walking with Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna” (Harvill Secker)

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This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party