It’s been over a year since the outbreak of the pandemic and the world is yet to be freed from the clutches of Covid-19. Plans of introducing vaccine passport are being mooted in several parts of the world, but seems that it may not be a great idea
By now you’ve probably heard the term being occasionally dropped by political leaders or health policy experts. At a time when the coronavirus still looms above us like the proverbial Damocles sword, vaccine passports seem to be the ticket to freedom that promises us a semblance of active life.
But what are they really? And why is there so much controversy around them?
A vaccine passport is simply a certificate that tells a person has been inoculated against a disease or has recently tested negative for it – in this case, the coronavirus. The certificate could be a digital one displayed on an app or using a QR code. For those without access to a smartphone, it could even be a good old-fashioned printout.
The term vaccine passport itself is a bit of a misnomer because its sole purpose is not just to cross borders. Places that have already begun to use vaccine passports do so for entry to mass events like concerts, movie theatres, sporting venues and the like.
The idea is simple. Businesses are trying to reopen and want to assure people who visit that they are safe. If the first wave taught us anything, it is that simply closing businesses won’t help because then you are basically putting a clamp on livelihoods as well.
Yes, some are already using it
The state of New York in the US has already implemented the system. The certificate itself is called the ‘Excelsior Pass’ and citizens who opt for it can present digital proof of their vaccination status or Covid-negative certificate to get easy access to events. As Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, puts it: “The question of ‘public health or the economy’ has always been a false choice — the answer must be both.”
The ‘Green Pass’ in Israel is widely used across the country for entry to restaurants, pools or even the gym while the European Union is coming up with a Digital Green Certificate as a vaccine ID by June.
Denmark uses ‘Coronapas’ to allow customers to visit hair salons and attend driving classes and intends to expand its use to include restaurants, cinemas and museums soon. Shops that allow in customers without the pass will be fined between €400-6,000.
The IATA Travel Pass developed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) also intends to give similar privileges to those in the aviation industry.
Others aren’t so keen
Take Texas state in the US, for instance. It has specifically issued an order which bans establishments from denying any service to people based on their vaccination status. The state government says that while vaccines themselves are voluntary, there is no need to force compliance by making vaccine certificates mandatory for people who “just wish to go about their daily lives”. In fact, roughly 18 states in the US have prohibited or restricted the use of vaccine passports.
The World Health Organization itself is not yet ready to recommend vaccine passport as a travel requirement in the foreseeable future and points out that disadvantaged groups in society do have unequal access to vaccinations.
Most importantly, WHO warns: “Being vaccinated should not exempt international travellers from complying with other travel risk reduction measures.” That’s because the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines in preventing transmission has not been proved yet.
Then of course, there’s a set of people who’d rather not take the vaccine and an entirely separate brood of the anti-vaxxers. Vaccine passports can’t be good news to either.
Isn’t it right to be a little suspicious of them?
Well, if you think about it, even schools require students to submit vaccination reports at the time of admission and since the 1970s you do need a WHO-approved vaccine card, known as the yellow card, that affirms you’ve been jabbed against yellow fever and some other diseases to travel to certain countries. For instance, if you’re visiting Pakistan or Afghanistan, you’ll need to be inoculated against polio and a stay of over 6 months in the UK will warrant a negative test for tuberculosis.
You will need a certificate on meningococcal meningitis vaccination to go to Mecca and Medina for haj or umrah because Saudi Arabia is among the handful of countries that fall in the meningitis belt. Even way back in the 1970s, a deadly outbreak of smallpox meant that South Asians couldn’t travel on ships without smallpox vaccination certificates issued by the government.
Clearly, vaccine certificates are not an entirely new concept that the pandemic has foisted upon us.
What might be the pros?
So far vaccine passports are perhaps the only safe way to open up businesses and livelihoods. In the US alone, it is estimated that without lifting bans on international movement, they will fail to restore 1.1 million jobs and will lose $262 billion in export spending by the end of this year. A vaccine passport can also simplify travel across state and international borders and frees vaccinated individuals from undergoing mandatory quarantine.
The fact that you might need a vaccine for easier access to public venues might actually drive up vaccination numbers. Vaccine credentials of any kind will certainly help revive the hospitality and tourism industries that have borne the brunt of the pandemic.
Believe it or not, Unicef says that as of February, there were 130 countries that hadn’t started giving out Covid vaccinations. That’s a mind-blowing 2.5 billion people who can’t get a vaccine even if they wanted to. Sadly, countries like Tanzania have no plans to even try.
Even within the US, the racial disparity is stark. Black and Hispanic people, though affected in greater numbers, are being vaccinated at much smaller rates than whites. For instance in California, Hispanic people account for 55 per cent of the cases and 47 per cent of the deaths but have received just 23 per cent of the inoculations – that too in a state in which they constitute 40 per cent of the total population.
There is also some concern about privacy with many people being downright uncomfortable with sharing health details which they fear may eventually be used against them.
Some researchers believe there is a lack of clarity on how long the vaccine-based immunity will last. And those vaccinated might still be able to transmit the virus, putting hospitality workers at risk.
By and large, it is not the idea of vaccine passports that worry people, but the distinct possibility that instead of becoming enablers, these credentials may eventually turn out to be disablers for a bigger section of people who are already on the disadvantaged end of the spectrum.