Vaccination Kick-off in Italy: Overshadowed by Populism

Kolosseum Italien Lockdown
Ein einzelnes Polizeiauto passiert das Kolosseum. Noch immer befindet sich Italien in einem harten Lockdown. © picture alliance / AA | Riccardo De Luca

Italy was the first country in Europe to be hit by the coronavirus pandemic almost a year ago - with devastating economic and social consequences. The long-awaited vaccine has finally been available in Italy since the end of December. 

On 27 December 2020, the highly anticipated vaccine arrived in Italy, as it did in Germany and other European countries. The "V-Day", as the day of the vaccination launch was called in Italian media, got off to a bumpy start, with hospitals simply lacking medical staff around the turn of the year due to poor coordination and holiday planning. The otherwise chronically politically paralysed country, however, managed to become capable of action in the face of an emergency situation, similar to the initial phase of the pandemic: Italy has caught up in vaccinations and is now leading among EU countries in the number of vaccinated people. Over one million doses have already been administered. The government's vaccination plan stipulates that vulnerable occupational groups, such as health workers, and at-risk groups, such as older people with chronic diseases, should be prioritised for immunisation in the first phase. Accompanying measures include rapid tests and mass screening of the population to quickly locate sources of infection. The ambitious goal is to vaccinate up to 70,000 people per day. In addition to administrative and logistical planning, the success of the vaccination campaign depends on the willingness of individuals to be vaccinated.

According to surveys, the average willingness of Italians to be vaccinated is around 60%, while around 40% of citizens do not want to be vaccinated or at least want to wait. It is difficult to say how representative the samples are; the figures vary significantly depending on the survey and the time. The results are contradictory with regard to a geographical propensity to vaccinate; sometimes northern Italy (especially South Tyrol), sometimes central Italy or the south is identified as the region with the most vaccination sceptics. Some studies show no regional differences at all. However, one interesting determinant is consistent in the surveys: the percentage of those willing to vaccinate decreases the further the political orientation moves to the fringes or to the right. In surveys by the national research institute Demopolis, for example, 68% of people aligned with the positions of the Democratic Party (PD) said they would like to be vaccinated, while the figure drops to 51% among supporters of the left-wing 5-Star Movement and to less than 30% among right-wing party affiliates such as the Lega or the far-right Fratelli d'Italia. 

Confidence in the government's ability to make the right decisions on the Corona vaccination strategy is a decisive factor in people's views. People who do not trust their political leaders will not accept a vaccine introduced by them. In Italy, citizens' distrust of the state runs deep, and institutions are traditionally weak. The traditional party system has been shaken as a result of the erosion of democracy and the rule of law by populist movements from the left and the right, the left-wing 5-Star Movement and the Lega as the prototype of the extreme right, which blames the supposed loss of national autonomy for the economic decline of Italians. While during the first wave the people had a comparatively high level of trust in the government of 5 Stars and Partito Democratico and in institutions such as the Civil Protection, it was largely squandered again in the second wave. All too often, the political elite, with a certain penchant for personalisation and melodrama, is guided by personal interests instead of criteria for the common good. 

The populist narrative has become mainstream in political discourse long before Corona in Italy and is spread massively through the new media. The extent to which the discourse has shifted can be seen in an example of the president of Campania, Vincenzo De Luca (PD). The politician, who was one of the first to undergo vaccination in his responsibility as governor, was quickly accused of taking advantage. The event was stylised as a scandal; the politician stealing the vaccination dose from the citizens. The reaction shows once again how deeply anchored it is in public opinion that the representatives of the people basically do not fulfil any essential function, but are only out for their personal advantage. 

There is a heated debate about the right vaccination strategy. Should restrictions be lifted more quickly for vaccinated people than for non-vaccinated people? Should vaccination be compulsory? Vaccinations are voluntary in Italy, as in Germany, and are provided free of charge to all citizens. The Italian constitution does allow the legislature to make vaccination compulsory if this is reasonable according to the current state of epidemiological conditions and constantly evolving medical research. However, compulsory vaccination must be implemented by law and must not violate human dignity. So far, the government has assured freedom from vaccination. This could change, however, if too few people are willing to be vaccinated. Meanwhile, the introduction of compulsory vaccination for certain occupational groups has not been ruled out by the Ministry of Health. More explicitly, Italy's largest employers' association, Confindustria, is calling for Corona vaccination to be made compulsory for company employees and for refusal to be punishable by dismissal if necessary. The President of the National Bioethics Committee (CNB) Lorenzo D'Avack, on the other hand, warned strongly against compulsory vaccination. Vaccinations should always be voluntary, he said, as pressure, i.e. compulsory vaccination, would have the opposite effect. It is much more important to "create incentives" and provide education. 

Cooperation with the local level is particularly important in developing and implementing tailor-made strategies to promote vaccination readiness, in order to strengthen confidence in the policy measures. Communities ensure that messages come from trusted advocates. Extensive training of health workers on the properties of the vaccine and better outreach to patients could additionally increase acceptance of the vaccination campaign. An open and transparent dialogue with citizens is called for by the liberal party "PiuEuropa" in order to combat fake news, conspiracy theories and widespread fears, such as that the vaccine has not been sufficiently tested. An information and advertising campaign, whose symbol is a primrose, including nobly designed vaccination pavilions in various cities in Italy is already underway. "Italia rinasce con un fiore" - Italy is to be reborn with a flower, is the slogan. With months of restrictions on personal freedoms and closures of restaurants, hotels, services, cultural and sporting facilities, it is hoped that with a successful vaccination campaign, public life in Italian piazzas will soon blossom again.