October 18, 2021 - 10:25am

Milan, Italy.

“Giu le mani dai bambini” (“Keep your hands off the children”)

“Educare alla libertà” (“Educate for freedom”)

“Studianti e operai nella lotta contro il green pass” (“Students and workers in the fight against the green pass”)

These were some of the slogans on display at this weekend’s anti-green pass protests in Milan, Italy. Protests were nationwide, but here at the Arco della Pace an unusual cross-section of students, blue collar workers and parents had marched through the gates of the Castello Sforzesco to make one last stand against the green passes.

As speakers expressed solidarity with striking port workers in the cities of Trieste, Genoa and Ancona, flags of European countries were placed in the middle of the square to illustrate that this movement was international. Speeches were fiery, short and energising, focusing on the arbitrary expansion of government power, infringement on workers’ rights and fears over what kind of precedent the green pass was setting for their children. 

Port workers protesting next to the Arco della Pace

While a few signs did lean quite heavily into the conspiratorial (“non è una pandemia, è un test di intelligenza”), most protesters — comprised of university students, dockers and social workers — expressed reasonable fears about the curtailment of their freedoms. 

In my conversations with the protesters, there was no talk of the Great Reset or Klaus Schwab, but mainly a desire to go back to the way things were before. “If you told me a year ago that I would be protesting on the streets for my right to go university,” one student told me, “I would have laughed at you”. (Admittedly, it wasn’t all this lofty: speeches were laced with epithets directed at Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the health minister, including creative suggestions as to where swabs could be inserted.)

But there was also an air of futility about the whole thing. This was the thirteenth consecutive Saturday of protests in Milan and some had been protesting since the green passes were first announced back in the summer. Now, this week, they were finally coming into effect. Many were angry (“Now we are a country that prioritises vaccination ahead of education”), but more were despondent: “I do not understand what my country has become”.

Protesters marching from the gates of the Castello Sforzesco

This remark seemed to capture the wider sentiment of the protests. There was a jaded acceptance that the “new normal” was here to stay, whether protesters liked it or not, reflecting a swelling disillusionment with the Government — and Italy more broadly. This was, after all, the first western country to follow the Chinese example and implement a nationwide lockdown back in March 2020. Now, it had become the first liberal democracy to make it mandatory for citizens to have a Covid passport to access not only most public spaces (as is already the case for all citizens over the age of 12) but all public and private workplaces as well. This, remember, in a country that is already 81% vaccinated.

While it is true that most Italians (and workers) are in favour of the green pass, feelings of disenchantment have spread well beyond a few malcontents. Barely half of Italy’s voters showed up to vote in this month’s local elections (the lowest turnout over) and in some cities, turnout in high-income neighbourhoods was as much as 30% higher than in low-income neighbourhoods. Introducing green passes is likely to exacerbate this gulf. 

As one worker told me: “I protest not because I think there will be change. I do it for my own conscience – that is it”. 

is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.