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Italy's New COVID Vaccine Mandate Is One Of The Strictest In The World

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Italy is launching some of the strictest anti-COVID measures. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that starting in October, government and private workers will be required to show proof of vaccination against the virus or lose pay.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Italy's vaccine passport is called the green pass. It's a digital or paper certificate of at least one COVID-19 vaccine, a negative test or recovery from the virus. Italy first required it for indoor dining, museums and gyms. It was then extended to high-speed trains, planes and ferries, triggering protests by anti-vaxxers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Shouting in non-English language).

POGGIOLI: In Milan last week, demonstrators proclaimed they'll resist what they say is government trampling on individual freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

POGGIOLI: And journalists were accused of being terrorists just by reporting on the mandate. But the government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi is determined to combat the pandemic. Public Administration Minister Renato Brunetta said all public- and private-sector employees will have to show their green pass to go to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RENATO BRUNETTA: (Through interpreter) That's total of 23 million workers; essentially, the entire human capital of the country.

POGGIOLI: Parliament voted this week that failure to present the certificate means the worker's salary will be withheld. Polls suggest the majority of Italians back use of the green pass, but there are holdouts. One of the most vocal is Francesco Borgonovo, deputy editor of the right-wing daily La Verita.

FRANCESCO BORGONOVO: (Through interpreter) The green pass is a political, not a health measure. No one up to now has proven to me that this political measure protects us against the virus.

POGGIOLI: An assertion dismissed by the great majority of Italian medical experts who back mandatory green passes for all workers. More than 76% of Italians over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated. The government hopes to reach 82% by mid-October. Immediately following the government announcement, appointments for a first dose rose up to 40% over the previous week.

Outside the Rome train station, the Red Cross has set up a large tent where COVID-19 vaccinations are administered. Mohammed Djallo, who migrated from The Gambia a few years ago, is waiting in line. He works for a private security agency.

MOHAMMED DJALLO: We need to get the green pass, yeah.

POGGIOLI: But Djallo does not appear enthusiastic.

DJALLO: For me, to take the vaccine is not a good idea. But I don't know.

POGGIOLI: Why? You worried about the vaccine?

DJALLO: Yeah, absolutely.

POGGIOLI: He says he's heard rumors about people who got sick from the shots, but he's not exactly sure about the details.

Italy was the first country hit by the pandemic and has the second highest COVID-19 death toll in the continent after Britain, with more than 130,000 since early 2020. The impact on the economy, particularly on the crucial tourism sector, has been devastating.

Isabella Collalto de Croy runs a winery and organizes special events at her family castle in Treviso, near Venice. She acknowledges that a mandatory green pass is a very stringent measure, but she points out that all her workers are already vaccinated.

ISABELLA COLLALTO DE CROY: And they're all almost proud to say, I've got my green pass. I can go wherever I want. I'm absolutely free. So is the green pass a sign of freedom? Is it the way to freedom? It's the way, the only solution - the way to solve the problem.

POGGIOLI: Europe's most stringent anti-COVID measure goes into effect October 15.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSION OF BURMA SONG, "TREM TWO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.