Andrea Petinari/ Medialys Images

Have Italy’s Covid pass protesters forgotten the carnage caused by the pandemic?

Bergamo was an early coronavirus epicenter. Now, some of its residents are joining a wave of ‘freedom’ demonstrations spreading across Europe

At 5 p.m. on September 25, Daniel Vezzoli, 34, was standing across from City Hall in the northern Italian town of Bergamo. He was answering a call to action that he had read on Telegram earlier that week. “Protests against the dictatorship, organized by the people, non-political, in over 120 cities,” it read. 

Along with 400 others, Vezzoli headed to the historic center of the city to demonstrate against Italy’s latest update to the EU Covid-19 passport, also known as the Green Pass. The document, which is set to last until the end of the year, makes Italy the first European country to make coronavirus health passes mandatory for both public and private-sector workers, starting October 15.

The Green Pass, which is required to access public spaces like indoor restaurants, gyms and cinemas, does not make vaccination mandatory. Residents have the option to take a rapid test every 48 hours, instead, but many complain they can cost up to 50 euros each and often require advance booking, making the process complex and expensive. 

In response, thousands of vaccine and Covid-19 skeptics gathered in cities across Italy — including Rome, Milan and Trieste. In Bergamo, protest organizers took turns railing against the Green Pass and the government’s immunization program. “Truth, truth, truth,” they chanted. “Keep your hands off our children.” 

In Bergamo, such demonstrations carry a particularly grim significance. As an early epicenter of the pandemic, residents saw military trucks ferrying corpses out of the town. The wider province of Bergamo had experienced an estimated 500% increase in deaths in March 2020, largely attributed to Covid-19. Between March and May 2020, almost 9,000 people died there, over 6,000 more than in 2019. During the second wave, between October 2020 and January 2021, Lombardy — the region within which Bergamo sits —  recorded more than 30% of all national coronavirus deaths.

“For us doctors, the past year-and-a-half has been incredibly tough, not only physically, but also emotionally,” said Dr. Paola Pedrini, secretary of the Bergamo province medical association. “Now that more people are getting vaccinated, we can breathe, at last.”

Those harrowing memories appear to mean little for people like Paolo Candellero, one of the protest organizers. “The vast majority of people who decided to inject this drug are having a hard time,” he said to the crowd at the protest. “They die more, they infect other people more. You can find documents proving this everywhere.”

Demonstrations against Covid-19 vaccines and the Green Pass have rocked Italian cities since July, when the government first mandated it. Crowds have gathered across Italy every Saturday, demanding freedom from regulations that they consider infringe upon their civil liberties. Similar demonstrations have also been held across Europe. In France, large numbers have taken to streets across the country for eight consecutive weeks. In Germany and the Netherlands, thousands of demonstrators have marched against what they describe as “medical apartheid.”

On messaging platforms such as Telegram, groups such as Basta Dittatura (Stop the Dictatorship), which has 50,000 followers across Italy, have been railing against the national pandemic response for months.

Conspiracy theories about a health dictatorship, or “dittatura sanitaria,” are commonplace on social media. Critics also share wild ideas about the origin of the virus, reports of alleged vaccine-related deaths and unproven “alternative” cures, such as the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin and vitamin D.

The gathering in Bergamo was one of the smaller nationwide protests, but in Rome and Milan, numbers reportedly ranged between 2,000 and 4,000 people. In both of the latter cities, demonstrations ended in clashes with police.

According to healthcare professionals, the current mistrust of national pandemic measures can be attributed to misinformation and overall fatigue with restrictions. “People have forgotten a lot of things about the past year,” said Dr. Guido Marinoni, head of the Bergamo medical association. “Those events are carved in history. It was a tragedy. That situation can only be compared to a war.” 

Doctors agree that vaccination rates are high enough to feel hopeful for the upcoming winter, with over 75% of the eligible Italian population having received a full course of shots. But skeptics could still hinder the gains made in the past 18 months. 

“People who don’t want to get vaccinated are still in the millions,” Marinoni said. “In Bergamo, people constantly claim they are exempt from the vaccine for the most bizarre reasons, and sometimes it’s stressful.”

In Bergamo, opponents recently devised a document mocking the Green Pass. The so-called Free Pass was reportedly devised by a law firm set up during the pandemic, named Comicost — short for Committee for Constitutional Freedom. It states that EU regulations discriminate against individuals who refuse to be vaccinated, and that people have the constitutional right to access any venue and move freely around the country, without having to comply with Green Pass requirements. 

Comicost’s Telegram group now counts over 20,000 members. In mid-September, the head of Bergamo’s bar association stated that the document would be investigated for possible violations of its code of conduct. 

The “Free Pass” has appeared on several other Telegram channels, including one called “Bergamo University Students against the Green Pass,” run by 21-year-old Federico Di Ceglie, who studies law at the University of Bergamo. When the Green Pass was announced in August, he joined a countrywide effort among students to oppose the mandate. The national movement, he says, counts between 20,000 and 30,000 members. 

Though Di Ceglie does not believe that his movement is powerful enough to influence government decisions, he is convinced that opposing state-mandated pandemic restrictions is important. “I don’t think the Green Pass is only meant as a Covid passport,” he said. “It’s not a short-term measure, but a long-term one, and I believe the government will keep enforcing it in different ways, even after the pandemic is over. That’s unacceptable.”

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Marta Biino

Marta Biino is a New York-based freelance journalist and the 2021 Li Center for Global Journalism Fellow.

@martabiino