IT-draghistanROME, Italy -- Italy reacted quickly to the emergency of the coronavirus' Omicron variant. The country was the first in the European Union to shut down travel from seven southern African countries. The government coronavirus task force pivoted to confront the new threat, further tightening what had already been Europe's strictest anti-Covid measures.

The threat also gave Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi at least a temporary reprieve from the rising tide of attacks accusing the government of veering uncomfortably toward Mussolini-like authoritarianism. People on all points along the political spectrum say the economist-turned-prime minister has gone too far.
Mario Bacco, a coroner and a leader of a movement to protest the increasing restrictions to fight the pandemic such as the so-called green pass that allows the vaccinated and others to access public venues questions whether they are effective or worth the clampdown on freedoms.
"What is the use of insisting on vaccinations when they will not protect is from new variants?" he asked. "We cannot deny the reality of the virus but the green pass is intolerable."
Draghi, 74, is no stranger to making tough decisions. As head of the European Central Bank (ECB), he is credited with saving the euro currency during the 2008-09 financial crisis. But when he was coaxed out of retirement to become prime minister in February, he speculated that leading an unstable government as the country fought to prevent financial collapse during a pandemic might be his toughest job yet.
He might have been right.
"Draghi does not come from a typical political background and he was a kind of national celebrity because of his high-profile success at the ECB, and that allowed him to take on problems in a different way," Flavio Chiapponi, a professor of political communications at Italy's University of Pavia, said in an interview. "But that has its limits."
Last year, Italy was the first coronavirus epicenter outside China, and residents have not forgotten the images of over-burdened hospital systems and corpses piled up in makeshift morgues.
With those grim memories still fresh, Draghi instituted what are considered the strictest coronavirus health rules of any democracy.
Anyone employed outside their home must have a valid health certificate obtainable via vaccination or a negative Covid test every 48 hours. Without that "green pass" workers risk suspension without pay.
Starting on Monday, even a negative test won't be enough: only those with a "super green pass" -- proving vaccination or antibodies from a recent bout with the virus -- will be allowed to enter restaurants, bars, or other indoor facilities.
On Wednesday, the government was the first in the European Union to begin vaccinating children as young as age five, and on Thursday, several Italian cities, including Rome, mandated mask use outdoors when adequate social distancing is not possible.
The rules are enough that Gandolfo Dominici, a management professor at the University of Palermo, dubbed the term "Draghistan" – combining the prime minister's surname with the authoritarian regimes of Central Asia such as Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. "It's clear we are living in a totalitarian regime," Dominici said.
Draghi remains popular: opinion polls regularly show he has the support of more than two-thirds of respondents. But the term "Draghistan" has still become a popular hashtag and meme on Italian social media.
Dominici is part of a small, vocal group of professors, researchers, and authors who stress they are not opposed to vaccinations but who reject the use of the green pass as unconstitutional and discriminatory. So far, more than a thousand university staffers have put their names to a petition calling for the government to step back green pass rules.
The emergence of the Omicron variant has quieted the movement against Drahi's health policies -- at least for now.
Attendance at anti-green pass events has dwindled over the last couple of weeks and news reports about the movement have largely been replaced by coverage of the spread of the new variant and Italy's coronavirus infection rate, which has been creeping higher even if it remains far below other big countries in Europe.
On Wednesday, Italy recorded more than 15,000 new coronavirus infections for the first time since April. Adjusted for population, that'd work out to be around 85,000 infections in the U.S., which in reality recorded just over 120,000 new infections on Wednesday. Germany, France, and the U.K. -- all of which have populations roughly equivalent to Italy's -- all recorded around 50,000 new infections.
Italy's government credits its aggressive vaccination campaign for its relative success in keeping the pandemic's fourth wave under control. As of Thursday, the country had vaccinated 85 percent of its residents aged 12 or older. But the anti-green pass movement is undeterred, vowing to continue the fight.
Edoardo Sylos Labini, an actor, film director, and a leader of the anti-green pass movement, said it was ironic that the Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa since it's creating a kind of "vaccine apartheid" in Italy, a reference to the system of racial and economic segregation that existed in South Africa until the 1990s.
"Why are the discussions about vaccinations but not therapies," Sylos Labini said. "We don't know the impacts vaccinations will have on us, or on children. If we don't develop treatments for the infected we will never get out of this pandemic."
Photo: November 24, 2021 - Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi during a press conference to provide details on the decree law to introduce urgent measures to contain COVID-19 and to allow economic and social activities to be carried out safely.
Credit: Courtesy of the Italian Government's official website. (11/24/21)
Story/photo published date: 12/06/21
A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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