(written on March 21st)
Various countries across the world are drafting plans to introduce COVID-19 vaccine passports. The EU plans to have a “Green Digital Certificate”. This would mean those who have received the COVID-19 vaccine, or have recovered from the virus or who have tested negative recently would be able to travel in the EU. Supporters of these certificates argue that they are essential for ensuring borders can reopen safely, which would allow economic recovery and a return to some sort of normal. Additionally, they may serve as an incentive for people to get vaccinated, which will positively impact those receiving the vaccine and everyone in society. On the other hand, many believe that the use of these documents could be unethical, fuel inequality and may be ineffective. Vaccine passports are not a new concept, but now with extremely unequal COVID-19 vaccination distribution in a pandemic, new issues may arise.
Vaccine passports are most functional when many people want to get vaccinated, but are unable to, due to scarcity. They would not be necessary once everyone is vaccinated or if nobody was vaccinated. The circumstances required for the need for these travel certificates also create unjust conditions. The implementation of COVID-19 vaccine passports would further fuel the impacts of the unequal vaccine distribution and inequality being widened as a result of the pandemic. For many migrants of colour who had to return home at the start of the pandemic, vaccine passports might be their way back into their jobs, but at present, they are last in line to receive the vaccines. As of February 17th, 2021, just 10 countries had administered 75% of total COVID-19 vaccines. António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, also stated 130 countries had not received a single vaccine dose. Furthermore, access to vaccines, as well as smart-phones for proof of vaccination is lower in marginalised communities and for asylum-seekers, further disadvantaging them. Tourism-dependent countries face the decision of protecting their tourism industry for revenue, or protecting the lives of their residents by stopping the spread. There is also the issue of certification of healthcare providers and testing labs being most difficult in the poorest countries.
Medical professionals are currently unsure whether these documents would be effective. While the vaccines provide strong protection against the virus, there is no certainty as of yet that they prevent the spread (but there is much supporting evidence). The WHO released a paper on the 5th of February insisting vaccinated people should continue to follow lockdown and coronavirus restrictions. Furthermore, they claim travelling internationally through the use of vaccine passports would be “premature”. Critics of the system also claim it is a waste of money if the aim for countries like the UK is to vaccinate all adults by the end of July.
Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at human rights group Liberty, says these documents may “create a two-tier society where some people can access support and freedoms, while others are shut out — with the most marginalised among us hardest hit”. A bioethicist at the University of Edinburgh (Sarah Chan) told Al Jazeera, “Vaccine passports, by splitting the population into the dos and don’ts, the wills and won’ts, is likely to lead to even greater polarisation and create deeper social divisions. At a time when collective action and solidarity are more important than ever, that is the last thing we need.”
With vaccine passports, many questions come into play regarding its efficacy, psychological impacts, economic impacts, human rights and ethical impacts. The bottom line is that we all have to continue social distancing, wearing masks and sticking to lockdown rules, as well as pushing for vaccine equality and systemic equality in our journey towards herd immunity.