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The Extremism of Italy’s ‘Health Passport’ by Pieter Cleppe

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The Extremism of Italy’s ‘Health Passport’

In this photograph, Italian hairdressers demonstrate against the severe restrictions and closing of businesses during the country’s COVID-19 lockdown.

Photo: Public Domain via Pxhere.

On October 15th, new Italian rules entered into force, requiring that all workers in both the public and the private sector present a so-called “Green Pass” or COVID health pass to go to work. This is despite the fact that more than 80% of Italians over 12 were already vaccinated against COVID.

It is one of the world’s strictest measures against the virus that has been gripping the world since early 2020 and has been introduced despite the now abundant evidence that vaccines are successful against COVID. This includes studies proving they reduce the chances of ending up in hospital by 90%. It is also visible in real life, as hospital data point out that a very large majority of those ending up in hospital with COVID are non-vaccinated—while EU member states with comparatively low vaccination rates, like Latvia or Romania, are witnessing an overburdening of their healthcare system.

Italian workers now need to show proof of vaccination, a negative test, or recent recovery from infection. Workers unable to present the Green Pass face suspension without pay and, in the event that they try to work, they face a fine of up to €1,500. The cost of COVID-19 tests for the unvaccinated is estimated at €180 per month (at the rate of three tests per week), something which is a lot of money for people on low incomes.

In the last few weeks, large demonstrations took place in Italy, as people rightly questioned this dystopian measure. Earlier this month, at mayoral elections in Trieste, an ‘anti-vax’ party managed to gain 4.5% of the vote.

In other European countries, opposition against this kind of measures is on the rise. At the end of September in Austria, the Österreich Menschen–Freiheit–Grundrechte Party (‘Austrian People, Freedom, Rights’ or MFG) obtained 6.4% of the vote in one of Austria’s largest regional parliaments, winning three seats. The party’s focus is to oppose restrictions requiring proof of inoculation to enter restaurants and other indoor spaces.

These kinds of restrictions are being rolled out across Europe, in a bid to increase vaccination rates. Such measures did manage to increase the vaccination rate in France, at least initially, but the effect seems to reach a ceiling at a certain point. The Belgian region of Brussels, which has a low vaccination rate compared to Western European average levels, has expanded the COVID pass to bars, restaurants, gyms, and hospitals, going beyond merely requiring it for big events. This, however, has failed to have a material impact on vaccination rates and may also not be applied as stringently in practice. Further, in Italy, the prospect of the new restrictions has not contributed to a surge in vaccinations.

However, even if a COVID pass could be proven to work to convince people to get vaccinated, it would be fundamentally wrong. This method truly comes down to bullying a part of the population in the hopes of convincing them to undergo a certain medical procedure. Perhaps this time around, it’s clear that vaccines do work, but what if this is much less clear in the future? It really is a scary precedent. Vaccine boosters are surely a good idea for the elderly, as it’s proven COVID vaccines only function at full force for about six months, but does this also mean that young and healthy people should take them? Yet, in Israel, a COVID pass is no longer valid unless one has received a ‘booster’ vaccine.

Perhaps for very weak people, the protection against hospitalization awarded by the vaccine may not be 90%. Vaccinated people, like medical care staff, are less contagious than the non-vaccinated, but they are still contagious to a certain degree. In other words, requiring medical staff to get vaccinated is not the most targeted method to protect hospital patients against COVID. Testing medical staff is much more useful to achieve that goal, even if one should do that in a pragmatic manner—it may not be possible to continuously test everyone entering and leaving a hospital or care home. 

In Italy, a majority of the public supports the green pass. However, about 15% of private and 8% of public sector workers have no green pass, according to an internal Italian government document. That’s a huge number of people. Democracy does not only entail respecting the will of the majority. It also entails protecting the fundamental rights of minorities. Is banning a sizeable part of the population from going to work unless they take a vaccine that only partially reduces COVID contagiousness a restriction of civil liberties proportional to protecting public health? Clearly not.

One could argue that if hospitals are flooded with the unvaccinated, then hospital care for the vaccinated is endangered. That is correct and a genuine danger in countries with a low vaccination rate. However, there are other methods to safeguard hospital care for the vaccinated. One method could be to request that the unvaccinated pay some kind of ‘insurance fee against the overburdening of hospitals.’ Those funds could be reserved to be strictly only used to prepare healthcare capacity for those that are not vaccinated, in the event many of them get COVID and end up in hospital. If this risk never materializes, the money paid, or most of it, should be returned.

One could argue that this also isn’t fair, but that case is hard to make, given the evidence in Latvia, where operations now have had to be postponed due to the high rate of unvaccinated people and where hospitals will only provide urgent and life-saving operations. In any case, anyone should find this much less intrusive than the totalitarian green pass imposed on Italians.

Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” With its new measures, Italy— and, for that matter, the many other European governments pursuing a similar path—is sacrificing a lot of liberty in exchange for hardly any extra safety. While it is important to take COVID seriously, those who want to protect themselves can do so rather well with FFP2 masks and booster vaccines. Targeted testing requirements and insurance fees to cover a potential extra burden on a healthcare system caused by the unvaccinated also could be acceptable ways to deal with the challenge at hand. But to deprive people of making a living should really be something that has no place in the world of the 21st century.

Pieter Cleppe is the editor-in-chief of BrusselsReport.eu, an online magazine covering EU politics. He is on Twitter @pietercleppe.

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