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Vaccine passports: to be or not to be?

The author discusses the impact of vaccine passports and how they may cause privilege disparity. According to the author, many people still do not have access to COVID-19 vaccines, therefore, by introducing vaccine passports, inequality will be created.

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With the availability of vaccines against Covid-19 in various countries, debates persist regarding the employment of “vaccine passports”. States and business enterprises are going towards a dualistic mechanism for the inoculated and the uninoculated.

While a few forms of such vaccine-related health certificates would facilitate international travel, others would enable intra-state mobility into “vaccination-only” areas like eateries, fitness centres, and auditoriums.

Though vaccine passports are meant to prevent the spread of the pandemic, they have also raised ethical questions regarding the appropriateness of differentiation based on a person’s vaccination status.

Such state-accredited digital documents will signify the vaccination of the holder against the virus and the status of their Covid-19 test results. These health certificates are being referred to with different names, including Green Pass and vaccine passports.

Read more: Unintended Consequences of COVID-19: Dying children and Digital Health

Impact of health certificates

Various firms have suggested varied means to ensure the health of travellers. However, the task at hand is to create a document or smartphone app which is globally accepted, privacy protected and allows accessibility regardless of technological and financial barriers.

In order to facilitate international travel, such vaccine passports need to acquire recognition from every state individually since entry standards differ for every country. The wider acceptance of such health passes is yet to be established.

Therefore, the interoperability among the systems of different countries needs to be worked out. Besides, the International Travel companies and tourism sector has taken a significant blow due to the pandemic-related travel restrictions. Hence, the airline companies are working diligently with various technology firms to come up with digital health certificates.

Read more: Countries worst-hit by travel & tourism shutdown

Such certificates will facilitate the loosening of international travel bans. For instance, the Travel Pass developed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) will allow the partner airlines, including Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, to embed the passport into their own apps.

Consequently, governments might not restrict the movement of people who do not present a health hazard to others any longer. China is the first state to issue such vaccine passports to its nationals to facilitate international travel. Washington and London are also deliberating on the matter.

Read more: China’s search for virus vaccine fast-tracked

Is the vaccine passport fair or unfair?

In terms of intra-country movement, as the number of vaccinated people will increase, there will be increasing shared spaces where only inoculated individuals might be permitted to enter.

Israel presents the first example where in order to reopen leisure activities, the Green Badge system has been introduced. However, the pass primarily caters to the local movements and activities.

Read more: Coronavirus: how is Israel monitoring its citizens through mobile phones?

The notion of such health certificates is, however, not new. Certain states have long necessitated visitors from other countries to produce a health certificate for such diseases as yellow fever.

Undoubtedly, a state is entitled to ensure the safety of its residents against any foreign infection, primarily when it has strived to get the ailment under control. The absence of vaccination implies presenting a health hazard to others, therefore justifying a vaccine passport.

On the other hand, vaccine passports also present an ethical conundrum and may seem morally unfair. More than a billion people worldwide do not possess any identity document ranging from a birth certificate to a travel passport. In such a scenario, the introduction of such digital documentation might enhance the disparity by forsaking many people.

Read more: In Pakistan, why are women the hardest hit by the pandemic?

Creating a privilege disparity

Likewise, there is a discrepancy in terms of vaccination access. The current pandemic response has brought to light the degree of inequality both within states and between regions that have better access to wealth, power, and resources.

Such disparity has augmented post-Covid-19. Presently, the affluent states globally have higher access to the lion’s share of a meagre resource, i.e. vaccines, while poorer nations comparatively have limited access.

Generally, there is a hierarchy followed in terms of access within each country. For instance, as a rule of thumb, the younger population is expected to be inoculated much later.

Read more: COVID-19 Vaccine: Will politicians, generals and judges be vaccinated on priority basis?

Thus, if a well-intentioned policy of health certificates or vaccine passports is ethically questionable, one may weigh the other possibilities. In a state like Pakistan, regarding intra-country movements, there is general acceptability for lockdowns.

There is an understanding of the ethical justification that lockdowns limit the freedom of people to ensure the safety of others from illness and possible death.

As for international travel, some alternatives are currently under practice. International travellers, if not vaccinated, are allowed to enter with the condition of obligatory quarantines. However, as the number of vaccinated individuals increases worldwide, the privilege disparity of the inoculated versus the uninoculated will become more apparent.

Read more: Is Sindh government politicizing COVID-19 vaccine deployment?

The author is a socio-political analyst working as an associate editor at an independent policy institute and attached as a visiting faculty at a public sector university. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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