Increasing numbers of people are getting vaccinated, including those ready to get back to “normal” life. Will vaccine passports facilitate this by allowing for more safety or impede this by creating a strong divide?
by Sriya Gundlapally
As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to fluctuate around the world, there is a growing desire for a return to “normal”, that is, to life before COVID-19. A vaccination record card has been the way to verify getting the COVID-19 vaccinations. Now, vaccine passports are being discussed as an option to make traveling safer by knowing who is eligible to travel based on vaccinations that they took, specifically for traveling past borders or with airlines. This has been in place before for other diseases and viruses including yellow fever, however, this is a new turn for COVID-19.
The main concern, aside from international differences, on vaccine passports seems to be whether individual preferences will be taken into account when implementing them, and this is where the trilemma is rooted. Safety of health and safety of information are on opposing sides of the argument and governments worldwide are recognizing this. Currently, some form of vaccine verification is in effect for many airlines, but there is the prominent question of whether or not vaccine passports will truly allow for a more comprehensive analysis of vaccination results for travel and increase public and individual safety. While some people see the benefits of vaccine passports, there is still the other perspective of how there are several complications that may arise from vaccine passports. And that’s where the trilemma lies: should people focus on the societal benefit or the individual implications of vaccine passports?
Vaccine Passports are Beneficial:
With vaccine passports, there will be more knowledge of who is vaccinated and who is not vaccinated, allowing for a safer environment for the people who are traveling or attending group events. This feeling of safety is encouraged as many people may be worried about staying safe in these situations even if they are vaccinated. As vaccine distribution is occurring, vaccine passports are an extra step to confirming safety. Especially during public events when many people attend from around the world, vaccine passports would allow for safer and more comfortable travel.
There have also been previous successes with implementing vaccine passports. For example, Israel has used a green-pass system to ensure who has been vaccinated against certain viruses or diseases. This lowers the risk of spreading a virus and those who are vaccinated are allowed to travel more easily. Although this may raise issues of rights, this process can be effective in ensuring that there is a higher level of safety during travel.
Beyond just implementation of vaccine passports, there is the idea that digitizing the process will be more efficient. Rather than paper documents, applications are being created to facilitate and run the vaccine passport system. Travel Pass and CommonPass are two apps which are part of this process; they work either by scanning a QR code or a wristband at the airport, depending on the application. These methods allow for a faster and possibly cheaper way to bring vaccine passports to action. Administering digital certificates is another idea from the World Health Organization. In this way, they can supplement travelers with more than the app information.
Vaccine Passports are Impractical:
The World Health Organization is not looking to make vaccine passports mandatory for the reason that getting the COVID-19 vaccine does not guarantee protection from the virus, despite the lowered risk. This raises the question of whether vaccine passports are worth it, especially because of their impermanency. Although the CDC advises against travel without vaccination, the issue has much more depth to it.
For an individual, there might be a different order of prioritization. For example, Harvard Medical Professor Kulldorff notes that if young people who want to travel rush to get vaccinated, other groups of people who may need it more, including elderly and low-income citizens, will not be prioritized. This creates the issue of inequality in the spread of the vaccination and the availability of vaccines in an equitable manner. Inequality is also created as those who are vaccinated get more of a privilege to return to their “normal” lives. The divide in society between the “haves and have nots” is a split that may cause further issues, especially with civil rights. Additionally, Dr. Wenham, an assistant professor for Global Health policy at the London School of Economics, believes that vaccine passports will “affect poorer countries” and “entrench inequality.” Those who cannot get the vaccine because of personal, financial, or medical reasons will not be able to return to their normal lives as quick, no matter how much they need to, and this group of people disproportionately includes minority low-income families.
Privacy is another concern. Digital applications and such have potential for data leaks and other security issues. Health and vaccination information is important to people in their daily lives, and a possible leak of information could put many people in danger.
International concerns are also possible with vaccine passports as different countries have different policies regarding COVID-19 and vaccinations. Availability of vaccines is also a concern; implementation in the interconnected world creates more complications as all countries and people must be accounted for to ensure equity. Due to this, a possible solution for both sides of the argument is for vaccine passports to be made available but not mandatory. This will allow for WHO and CDC guidelines to be followed while also accounting for those who may not be able to get the vaccination yet for various reasons. Also, by allowing for vaccine passports as an option rather than a requirement, people feel less pressured into getting vaccinated and are able to do it at their own will and need. In fact, Fauci includes that vaccine passports are “not going to be mandated from the [US] federal government.” Everyone should be able to do what they seem the best fit for them regarding vaccine passports while ensuring public safety.