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24th Jan 2022

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Why Is Italy struggling to convert its anti-vaxxers?

  • US anti-vax campaigner Robert F. Kennedy Jnr interviewed in Italy in November 2021, telling the IppocrateOrg YouTube channel about the supposedly 'toxic ingredients' of vaccines (Photo: Screengrab/IppocrateOrg)
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Almost every weekend, protesters continue to hold demonstrations and sit-ins in cities across Italy in opposition to the so-called "green pass" — proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative Covid test needed to access workplaces and a whole host of public services.

Despite having one of the best vaccination rates in Europe, Italy is still struggling to convince a small section of the population to get the jab.

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  • Prime minister Mario Draghi announced a 'Super Green Pass' next month that will limit access to indoor restaurants, cinemas, gyms and sporting stadiums to those vaccinated or recovered - while Covid tests remain valid for entry into workplaces (Photo: Flickr/ECB)

Much of the difficulty seems to lie in the multiple and diverse reasons behind people's refusal - which has seen political supporters from the extremes of left and right unite with conservative Catholics and vaccine sceptics.

In October, Rome exploded in protests during which demonstrators trashed a trade union headquarters and attempted to storm the parliament.

It emerged that the violence had been orchestrated by far-right groups capitalising on anti-vax frustrations. As Donatella Di Cesare, a Rome university philosophy professor, wrote in the national newspaper La Stampa, "The hostility toward the [green] pass, the aversion to the vaccine" is something that "the post-fascist right well knows how to utilise."

The far-right Brothers of Italy party has gained support from vaccine opponents by criticising the green pass and defending "freedom of choice."

In contrast, in the city of Novara earlier this month protesters dressed up as Auschwitz prisoners in an attempt to compare the vaccine mandate to the Holocaust and fascist oppression. They carried banners reading "Stop Dictatorship". At a rally in nearby Milan, Robert F. Kennedy Jr, an American anti-vaccine advocate, slammed the green pass as an "instrument of obedience and financial control, the same as the passbooks that were issued by the Third Reich."

Side-by-side with the politically-motivated in Milan were also demonstrators citing religion as their reason for refusal, marching with crosses and images of the Virgin Mary.

And accompanying them all have been the vaccine sceptics, many part of a movement that dates back over two decades. A now-discredited 1998 study in the UK journal Lancet that linked vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella with autism in children had a profound impact in Italy. That generated a surge in parents refusing child immunisation.

It's clear, however, that the historic study is not the only motivation for vaccine refusal now.

Social media and the messaging service Telegram are providing platforms for anti-vaccine content and conspiracy theories to circulate. Mauro Rango, a 'health and wellness advisor' with no medical background, has a popular Facebook page called IppocrateOrg where he frequently shares posts containing false information about coronavirus.

Viola Stefanello, a web-culture researcher, told Foreign Policy, "There's a whole galaxy of Facebook pages that have been peddling this kind of stuff — and other conspiracies — for years."

As Guido Petrangeli, journalist and web researcher, writes in HuffPost, conspiracies often claim that Covid-19 vaccines are made of deadly chemicals that kill more people than they save, and are part of a global identification system.

Petrangeli also notes that the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) found that many of these conspiracies have roots in Russian sites like SouthFront and GlobalResearch.

He writes that in the information shared by vaccine opponents in Italy, "there are very often strange references to Russia for having managed to 'defeat' Covid-19 without vaccines and without the restrictions put in place by Western governments."

Michael Roth, Germany's minister for European affairs, has gone as far as to suggest that the violent riots that took place in October were sparked by Russian propaganda.

There are also reports that the Russian media has given plenty of coverage to the protests. Pravda, Russia's historic communist newspaper, printed an article applauding "alternative" treatments against the coronavirus and the doctors who administer medicines prohibited by the EU.

It also praised the site of Mauro Rango for sharing information about unconventional treatments to avoid the allegedly "unscrupulous" use of mRNA vaccines.

Trust in 'nature'

In the northern Italian province of Bolzano, just over the border from Austria, vaccination rates are the lowest in the country.

As opposed to conspiracy theories, experts have linked hostility towards inoculation with a tendency to favour homeopathy and natural cures. "There is some correlation with far-right parties, but the main reason is this trust in nature," according to Patrick Franzoni, a doctor heading up the vaccination campaign in the province.

Italy's tough Covid regulations are likely the reason why the country has managed to administer two doses of the vaccine to an impressive 84 percent of the population aged over 12 (the European average currently stands at 65 percent). But it seems more is still required to coerce the disparate alliance of vaccine refusers.

The Italian government has cracked down on anti-vax protests by prohibiting rallies in city centres.

Last week, prime minister Mario Draghi announced a 'Super Green Pass' will come into effect next month that will limit access to indoor restaurants, cinemas, gyms and sporting stadiums to those vaccinated or recovered - while Covid tests remain valid for entry into workplaces. Will this be enough to convert the final 15 percent?

Author bio

Rebecca Ann Hughes is a freelance journalist in Venice.

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