Nature-loving and science-doubting health enthusiasts are at the heart of a vaccine skepticism that is largely contributing to a surge in infections, filling up hospitals and triggering new restrictions
By Emma Bubola
Published: Dec 18, 2021
BOLZANO, ITALY - DECEMBER 12: People have their Green Pass checked before entering a restaurant next to the ski slopes on December 12, 2021 in Obereggen, Italy. Ski facilities remained inactive for two years during the Covid-19 pandemic, re-opening in recent weeks with the hope of boosting tourism, yet with high infection rates and low vaccine turn-out the 2021 season remains uncertain. To combat the rise in Covid-19 cases in Italy, the government tightened health restrictions with a "super green pass" as of December 6. (Photo by Francesca Volpi/Getty Images)
SAN CANDIDO, Italy — For the family of organic farmers nestled on the side of a snow-blanketed mountain in Italy’s northern province of Bolzano, the coronavirus was no match for the immunizing effects of the crisp alpine air, the invigoration of a good hike and the healing powers of the forest’s mosses, herbs and vegetables.“If someone coughs, we do onion compresses, a body cream of thyme and myrtle, and drink a lot of tea,” said Sabine Durnwalder, 37, an unvaccinated resident of the farm in the scenic valleys near the border with highly infected Austria. “I know how to protect myself.”
Bolzano has traditionally had the healthiest, fittest and most active population in Italy. Now, it is also the area with the highest rate of coronavirus infection. A traditional preference for natural remedies has extended to a widespread rejection of vaccines, making it Italy’s least vaccinated region.
Though officials have raised concerns regarding conspiracy theories and disinformation about vaccines spread by right-wing populists, experts here say the nature-loving and science-doubting health enthusiasts are at the heart of a vaccine skepticism that is largely contributing to a surge in infections, filling up hospitals and triggering new restrictions.
“The main reason is their trust in nature,” said Patrick Franzoni, a doctor who spearheads the province’s vaccination campaign. “They don’t understand that it is no help against COVID.”
With about 70% of the province fully vaccinated, Bolzano has the highest number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in Italy, and the highest share of intensive care unit beds occupied by coronavirus patients. All of the patients in intensive care were unvaccinated, Franzoni said.
He said many patients arrive at the hospital with advanced cases of the virus, increasing the likelihood that they will succumb.
Doctors in the area have long complained that they are often late at diagnosing serious illnesses because the local population — which consumes the least amount of pharmaceutical medications in the country and has the lowest rate of tetanus, flu and hepatitis B vaccinations — often wait weeks before calling an ambulance.
Durnwalder, the vaccine skeptic at the organic farm, argued that living in a virtual wilderness area, residents were essentially not at risk of contracting the virus or of passing it to others. Her main contact with the outside world is with people who rent out apartments at the farm, she said. Then, she said, she wears a mask and keeps her distance.
She was forced to leave her job as an obstetrician this year when the government mandated coronavirus vaccines for all health care workers. Pregnant with a third child, she refused to let doctors give vaccines to her daughters, and she treated the family with vitamin C, plantain herb and pine buds.
“If you trust yourself and nature,” said her husband, Markus Burgmann, 39, throwing a snowball for the couple’s dog to fetch, “you should not be afraid.”
The Italian and local governments, fearing a destabilizing health situation after a spike in cases, imposed tighter restrictions in the area last week to contain the virus.
The new rules upset Massimo Galletti, the unvaccinated owner of a shop selling herbs, organic food and other natural remedies in the town of Dobbiaco. He is also a triathlon coach, and complained that he couldn’t have a coffee at the cafe of the local swimming pool. The government, he said, didn’t realize how much space residents had and how outdoorsy they all were.
“For people who live here, being unvaccinated should not bring restrictions,” he said. “We are different. We live a different life.”
His wife, Vroni Baumgartner, agreed. “I don’t smoke. I don’t take medicines,” said Baumgartner, 56, an ecologist who clears garbage from the local river. “Why should I put something in my body that is not good for me?”
Many people in Bolzano have German-sounding surnames, as the province was assigned to Italy when the German and Austrian empires were dismantled after the World War I. It has maintained its Austrian roots ever since, with local residents wearing lederhosen, eating Linzer tarts and speaking better German than Italian. Their frequent exchanges with Austria have also emerged as a cause for the recent spike of coronavirus cases in the area.
The people of wealthy and tidy Bolzano are famously independent, and often bristle at decrees from Rome. That has extended to the vaccine mandates, especially because an aversion to inoculation runs deep here.
In the beginning of the 19th century, after conquering the area, Napoleon annexed it and attached it to Bavaria, which in 1807 mandated smallpox vaccinations for its subjects. In 1809, the people of the region rose up in armed revolt in part against vaccination, which they thought injected Protestantism into their Catholic veins. To spread the alarm, they lit bonfires throughout the area.
Earlier this month, on the eve of the new restrictions for the unvaccinated, hundreds of anti-vaccination activists reached back into their history and lit fires and candles in their gardens and balconies.
“We want to show we identified a great danger,” read a Facebook post on the page of the local vaccine skeptic group called Wir-Noi — meaning “Us” in German and Italian. “May the fire of freedom travel the world.”
The virus has traveled fast, too.
Michele Unterhofer, who runs a hotel in Dobbiaco and is unvaccinated, caught the coronavirus about a month ago. So did 13 other people he spent a day with recently, only three of them vaccinated. He said last week that his sister, who pulled her child out of school in disagreement with the coronavirus rules, was sick at home with the virus.
As he sat in the hotel’s bar, where men in white mustaches and green felt hats drank coffee, Unterhofer, 38, said he would close his hotel temporarily to protest the government’s requirement to admit only guests who were vaccinated.
The requirement is part of a broad set of restrictions the Italian government has introduced for the unvaccinated to persuade them to get a shot. In Bolzano, local health authorities have tried to attract people to vaccination centers with bread and sausage, and a DJ playing disco music.
“It’s a local saying — the farmer does not eat what he does not know,” said Angelo Dapunt, 65, a former marathon runner and owner of a clothing shop in Dobbiaco. “But people who live in the farms and stay out in the cold have a stronger fiber, they never even get a cold.”
He has resisted vaccination, citing a thyroid problem, and his wife and children are unvaccinated.
But many local residents, trusting in science to protect them from contagion, worry that their neighbors are playing with fire.
“Here they are convinced that they live in heaven on earth with super pure air and they don’t get sick,” said Adriana Ziliotto, 74, as she bought two trays of pastries from a local bakery. “But they do.”
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