ROME—The messages started popping up on Telegram a few days after Italy announced a new vaccine mandate requiring everyone over age 50 to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk hefty fines and even termination from their jobs.
Here in the first epicenter of the pandemic outside of China, Italy has paid a hefty price with lockdowns that have crippled the economy and the deaths of more than 140,000 people. Vaccine mandates have become the primary strategy in moving forward, yet a small number of people continue to resist.
The only alternative to getting vaccinated is having recovered from the infection, which must be registered on a person’s national health card. “I am urgently looking for a positive and I am willing to pay,” one desperate anti-vaxxer wrote, according to Italian police who are cracking down on the clandestine COVID meetups and other scams ahead of the Feb. 1 deadline for the over-50 vaccine mandate.
Soon after the announcement of the new law, enterprising opportunists started offering COVID parties where people who tested positive for the disease mix and mingle with those who want to catch it—one racket in Tuscany even includes a truffle dinner with Barolo wine, along with a positive-testing infection for around $150.
Other scams have also emerged. Two people were arrested in Rome after one man who was COVID positive used the health card of someone who wanted to skirt the vaccines to get tested at a pharmacy. When the COVID-positive man opted to pay with his own credit card—which obviously did not match the health card of the man who wanted a positive COVID diagnosis attached to his—the pharmacy conducting the test reported them both.
Infectious-disease specialist Pier Luigi Lopalco said on Italian television that the COVID parties and other scams are against the law and people involved should be hunted down and arrested. “This uses the same logic as playing Russian roulette. For a person who has never had COVID, who has not been vaccinated, encountering this virus can mean a mild form of the disease, but it can also it means ending up in intensive care,” he said on Italian television. “The discriminating factor between these two occurrences, probably, lies in genetics. And there is nothing that can be done to know in advance.”
He added, “Nobody can know before getting infected, if they belong to the lucky group that will not have serious consequences or to that less fortunate group that can end up being intubated.”
The trend is not so terribly different from anti-vax parents who held measles parties for their kids when vaccinations became mandatory in Italy—which led to legislation that made such practices illegal.
After an anti-vax nurse was arrested for hosting a COVID party in Milan last week, virologist Roberto Burioni tweeted his disgust. “I would pay any amount to get me (and my loved ones) the vaccine, instead there are people who pay not to have it,” he wrote. “It’s like paying to have airbags removed from your car.”