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Covid-19 disinformation collides with climate conspiracy theories in Italy

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter, tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: Russia insists ‘this is not a lockdown’ and coronavirus chaos in Papua New Guinea

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Federico di Ceglie sounded convincing. There was something almost reassuring about the slow and deliberate way the 21-year-old law student built his argument against Italy’s Green Pass — the mandatory Covid-19 passport that has become part of pandemic life in the country.

A native of Bergamo, the epicenter of the country’s first devastating wave of coronavirus infections, Di Ceglie now heads the local wing of Italy’s Students against the Green Pass movement. When I spoke to him, I could see why he became the group’s leader. He dipped in and out of history and philosophy to explain why he believes the health pass to be a dangerous violation of freedom and human rights. I was almost buying it, until he threw in an unexpected twist. 

“There is a reason why it’s called the Green Pass,” he said, then told me that the measure is more about the environment than the coronavirus.

The nexus of climate change and the pandemic was a conspiracy theory I had never heard of before. But since my conversation with Di Ceglie in September, I have also watched this idea spread across Italy’s clamorous social media platforms — especially Telegram, where most of the anti-vaccination and anti-Green Pass groups live. 

Members of these groups believe that the Green Pass is part of a plan to introduce a “new world order” and a “health dictatorship” that will eventually track and control all aspects of citizens’ lives.  

A prominent anti-vaccination blog, Weltanschauung, with over 50,000 followers on Facebook and 30,000 on Telegram, has recently been discussing how the Green Pass will become a tool to control not only the health of people, but also their financial status, their access to bank accounts, their carbon footprint and the “potential pollution” caused by their family members.

More significant perhaps than its online presence is the fact that this cocktail of pandemic and environmental conspiracies is fed by Italian academia. Over 1,000 professors and researchers from Italian universities signed a petition to oppose the Green Pass when it came into force in August. 

The majority of them protested the very real double standards that it introduced: a Green Pass is valid after a person gets their first vaccine dose or a negative Covid-19 test taken within 48 hours previously. And, while vaccination is free, testing costs money. Despite a decree limiting the price of testing to 15 euros, some people still see it a serious economic burden.

But other academics went further. Dr. Carlo Lottieri, a law professor at the University of Verona, believes that the Green Pass is meant to create a “society of control,” because “the Italian government thrives during emergencies.” He argues that in a country famous for its dysfunctional politics, the government cannot do its job without a crisis that people will rally around. “Global warming will be next,” he predicted to me. 

Really? Could the Green Pass become a climate pass? Lottieri says that many of his fellow academics, from across the political spectrum, agree. “Left wing, right wing, Marxist, liberal, we all understand that this measure is here to stay,” he said.

A significant number of people believe that once states find a way to enhance control over citizens, it’s almost impossible to roll back the process.  “They’re already saying that we’re entering a climate crisis. This will be yet another way to control us. To me, it’s a nightmare,” Lottieri said.

However, for every person who opposes the Green Pass, there are many who welcome it. Take Italy’s exhausted medical workers. “This measure has been crucial to allow people to find health and safety in social settings again,” said Dr. Tiziana Viora, who works at a hospital in Torino, northwest Italy. “It’s only thanks to vaccines and the Green Pass that my hospital, and others around the country, are now back to normality.”

Italy’s state of emergency and the Green Pass measure are set to expire on December 31, but with Covid cases rising across Europe, authorities are now considering an extension. For people who oppose the Green Pass, that would offer clear proof of their theories. 

GLOBAL ROUND UP

With Covid-19 cases rising around the world, governments are struggling to reintroduce lockdown measures without quite calling them lockdowns. “There is no lockdown in Moscow and there isn’t one planned,” said President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, just as local authorities in the capital and several other regions told people to stay indoors. One place where the government remains unapologetic about such measures is China. Here are two examples from this week: 

  • The local secretary of the Communist Party, along with six senior health and police officials were sacked when 136 Covid-19 cases were discovered in the Inner Mongolian region of Ejin Banner. Punishments were also meted out to the local hospital for good measure. The area is now under a lockdown and so are about 10,000 tourists, who visited to see the changing colors of the Gobi desert’s poplar trees. 
  • A high-speed train arriving in Beijing was ordered to halt service after one attendant was identified as a close contact of a person with coronavirus and 211 passengers were defined as “sub-close contacts.” All have been quarantined. 

The global inequality of vaccine distribution is on stark display in Papua New Guinea this week. The country is facing a massive crisis. Half of its pregnant women are testing positive, community spread is rampant and hospitals are filling up. Only 1% of Papua New Guinea’s population is vaccinated. The nation has not yet received any of its promised doses from the United Nations-backed Covax scheme. For more, read this excellent report from our friends at the New Humanitarian.

And the winner of this week’s Infodemic is a man from Dublin (not the Irish capital, but a city in the U.S. state of Georgia), who was federally charged with wire fraud after lying about owning a small business to receive a Covid-19 relief loan. He received $85,000 of aid, only to spend $57,000 of it on — wait for it — a Pokemon card. 

Sasha Tyan, Isobel Cockerell and Masho Lomashvili contributed to this week’s Infodemic. Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated that testing in Italy can cost up to 50 euros. This has been amended.

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