ROME – When school resumed in September, Christian Stadler of Merano, in Italy’s mountainous border province of Bolzano, was among dozens of teachers suspended without pay.
The reason: he was not vaccinated. Under government rules, all school workers must present a digital health passport or get tested every other day.
Back in the classroom under the testing regime, Stadler says he is not anti-vaccine, but opposed to “experimental COVID-19 vaccines, the government’s handling of the pandemic and the divisions that are creating in our country. company”. data on deaths of unvaccinated “suspects”.
His views are not uncommon in German-speaking Bolzano, in the Alpine region of South Tyrol on the border with Austria, where a historic distrust of the central government has led to low vaccination rates – and now, to an increase in cases.
In a first for a Western democracy, Austria announced on Friday that vaccination would be compulsory from next February. Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg also imposed a 20-day nationwide lockdown to contain a wave that has flooded hospitals with critical patients.
Experts have linked the increase in infections in Bolzano to a cultural predisposition for alternative medicine and a close connection with nature, as well as strong links with neighboring Austria, where low vaccination penetration has emerged in regions where the political extreme right enjoys strong support.
Italy has so far fared better than other European countries, but with new daily cases tripling between mid-October and mid-November, it is expected to follow closely.
The weekly incidence rates in Bolzano per 100,000 out of 405 place Bolzano among the worst of any Italian region.
Restrictions are triggered when weekly cases exceed 50 per 100,000 and hospital and intensive care bed limits are exceeded, and Bolzano is on the verge of hitting them as well. Italy’s National Institute of Health could order the province on Friday to impose the first level of restrictions, which include wearing masks outdoors and limits on restaurant tables and public events.
The wealthiest province in Italy, often seen as the most efficient and with the best healthcare, Bolzano is perhaps a surprising competitor for having the lowest vaccination rate in Italy. According to the GIMBE, around 30% of the population is not vaccinated, a level similar to that of Germany and Austria.
As a semi-autonomous region, Bolzano has a historic reluctance to accept orders from the central government. Its tendency towards vaccine hesitation dates back two centuries, when Tyrolean guerrillas rebelled against a smallpox vaccine mandated by the Bavarian administration.
South Tyrol had low levels of childhood immunizations before COVID, with only 68% of children vaccinated against measles in 2014. The pro-autonomous South Tyrolean People’s Party, which has controlled the province since 1948, has occasionally held ambiguous positions on vaccines and challenged closures last year, citing its independence.
And while Bolzano speaks 70% German, a curious reversal of stereotypes has seen Italian speakers tend to be more obedient during the coronavirus pandemic. When the workplace rules arrived, 20 percent of school staff in German-language schools were not vaccinated, compared to 3 percent in Italian schools.
German speakers also seem to have lower levels of trust in health authorities. A poll in May found that only 44% of German speakers trust the Italian National Institute of Health, compared to 70% of Italian speakers.
Sociologist Oliver Nachtwey of the University of Basel, who studies vaccine reluctance in German-speaking regions of Europe, has identified a strong desire for holistic lifestyles, authenticity and self-actualization in these regions, which does not fit with the government’s vaccine mandates. It traces cultural change back to the movements of 1968, with expressions in Steiner schools, organics and a growing faith in homeopathy.
Clara Mayer Kaibitsch, who runs an agriturismo and restaurant in the Fié allo Sciliar region, says that most vaccine skeptics in her community are German-speaking: “Some because they are opposed to someone telling them what do, and some believe in natural immunity. and that the body is strong and can solve its own problems.
She attributes the differences to German-speaking citizens accessing different media, including an Austrian TV broadcaster who has been criticized for inviting skeptical and vaccine health “experts” to her panels to peddle conspiracy theories.
Like many who work in the hospitality and tourism industry, Mayer Kaibitsch is at risk of being hit by blockages over Christmas. Bolzano depends on tourism for 17% of its GDP, compared to 13% in Italy as a whole, and has already suffered the loss of two ski seasons.
The region has tried to fight the virus with mass screening and to convince the hesitant by sending mobile vaccination buses to rural areas. But with even small pockets of unvaccinated people filling hospital wards – enough to put the region at risk and economic recovery at stake – the battle, like local geography, can be difficult.
This article is part of POLITICSThe premium policing service of: Pro Health Care. Prices for medicines, EMAs, vaccines, pharmaceuticals and more, our expert journalists keep you up to date on the topics that drive the political agenda in healthcare. E-mail [email protected] for a free trial.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the COVID incidence rates in Bolzano compared to the rest of Italy.