Vaccine passports - simplification or discrimination

Designed to ease post-pandemic life, this type of certificate is likely to only create more chaos

Over a year into the pandemic, the world is mentally exhausted and itching to return to some semblance of normalcy. One way to get there is to vanquish the virus, which - if at all possible - would take at least one more year. The other route involves learning to live with the virus and limiting its spread through a massive vaccination effort and vaccine certificates, also known as vaccine or green passports.

Under such existing plans, the implementation of some of which has already started, a document of this kind will serve as its holder's ticket to mostly get their pre-pandemic life back. Holders will be able to travel abroad without needing to take expensive PCR tests or quarantine each time. They will be allowed to attend large public gatherings such as concerts, soccer games, festivals, carnivals, etc., events that the world will resume sooner or later. Free and without restrictions, they could tell themselves this is the new normal.

However, the creation and introduction of these vaccine certificates raises more questions, more than the answers it provides, at least at this point. Setting aside the technical side of the issue - whether the document will be strictly digital or offered on paper too - there are a bunch of other question marks surrounding the application and even ethics of such a document.

About a month ago, the European Commission presented its project for a so-called Digital Green Certificate, meant to facilitate travel in the EU while the pandemic is still ongoing. Under this project, the certificate would serve as proof that its holder has been vaccinated against Covid-19, has recently had a negative rapid or PCR test, or has antibodies from having contracted the virus at some earlier point. It sounds good in theory. But… There are several “buts”, actually.

First, getting this system up and running will take at least a couple of months. In the absolute best-case scenario, the certificate can be implemented sometime in the middle of June. Given how “speedy” EU procedures normally are, this timeline seems unlikely.

Second, Member States reserve their right to impose or lift restrictions on travellers, but will have to make them uniform for both those who have a green certificate and those who do not. What is the point of this document then?

Third, even though the European Commission explicitly notes that the document's purpose is to guard against discrimination of people who have not taken the vaccine, it remains unclear how non-vaccinated people who have not had the virus will be treated, let alone those who are apparently impervious to the virus because of natural cellular immunity.

Fourth, since its reveal in the middle of March, the plan got stuck in the administrative quagmire between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council. We will have to wait and see about that mid-June target period.

Meanwhile, some Member States, and a good number of countries outside the EU, have started preparing their own versions of the certificate project. Just days ago, Denmark presented a scheme which the government in Copenhagen believes will help businesses in the country to reopen.

The Danish “corona pass” will be available in digital and paper formats for people who have gotten their second vaccine shot, have had a positive Covid-19 test anywhere from 2 to 12 weeks prior, or a negative test result within the past 72 hours. For starters, the pass will allow holders to visit certain places - the hairdresser's, beauty salons and driver's classes, with the list expected to grow. Public spaces are scheduled to open on 21 April, while restaurants, museums, theatres and cinemas - on 6 May. All spheres of life are set to be reopened on 21 May, by which point authorities hope to have vaccinated the country's entire population over the age of 50. However, at least for the time being, the document will not apply to travelling.

What about the people who have not been vaccinated, have not had Covid-19 or who contracted the virus last year? Will they have to test every time they want to go out for a cup of coffee? Or will they have to stay cooped up in their homes, slowly going crazy? To top it all, businesses that allow clients without “corona pass” on their premises risk a €400 fine for first-time offenders and a €6,000 fine for repeated offenders. For their part, the clients will have to pay €330 for the transgression.  

Correct me if I am wrong, but this is either terrible senselessness or outright discrimination. You can now wait for the protests. Some are scheduled for this Saturday.

The United Kingdom is also about to “decorate” its citizens with such certificates, and according to UK ministers, they are about to become “an integral part of our lives” despite the serious political resistance to their imposition. For now, however, London is handling this matter more carefully than Copenhagen.

To start with, Covid-19 vaccine certificates will be tested during mass events such as the FA Cup final in England, which is scheduled to take place with the presence of audience in the stands. Later on, they can be imposed for visiting shopping malls and crowded places, and even for going to work, but not for using public transport, visiting a pub or grocery store.

This scheme, although being “soft”, has already provoked resistance, and over 70 House of Commons MPs from all parties have grumbled against its imposition. In their words, certificates are “divisive and discriminatory”, which is quite true. Labour MPs have already indicated that they will vote against if these measures are to be submitted for voting.

Authorities offer the excuse that certificates will only be valid until the end of the pandemic, that businesses will be able to choose whether to require them, and that other countries already require them at the border. Airlines in general support their introduction as well.

However, the questions remain, and the certificates will inevitably impose discrimination, say British experts. People with severe allergies, pregnant women for whom it is not recommended to be vaccinated, as well as children under 16 years of age cannot obtain these documents. Where is then their place in the scheme? Perhaps overboard?

While in Europe the debate is at least still open, this is not the case in Israel. The Jewish state has conducted the fastest mass vaccination in the world, and logically its authorities passed the vaccine certificate along with it. Today, almost everyone in Israel possesses such a certificate and is ready to show it on request. However, according to some witnesses, while certificates were widely required at the opening of the country a month ago, now they are less and less necessary to be shown when visiting shops or restaurants. Simply, everyone is tired of it, even the control authorities.

An Israeli health expert reveals off the record that these certificates were never actually thought of as a real tool for gaining access to certain places. Their purpose was to set up barriers for a short time, thus encouraging young Israelis to get vaccinated, after the adults have already done it, with the promise that they would have access to all their desired locations. This trick has worked. Now, nearly 90% of all Israelis are vaccinated, they possess green certificates and they can go wherever they want, even without showing it. I think the comment here is redundant.

The US has also joined the global disagreement on this issue. A few days ago, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated that President Biden and his administration had abandoned the idea of issuing vaccine passports due to concerns of violations of Americans' privacy and rights. “The government is not now, nor will we be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” said Psaki on Tuesday, addressing reporters at the White House. She said also that there would be no “federal vaccinations database” or a “federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential”.

The global divergence of approaches is obvious. It is even more obvious that this is not the way out of the pandemic and back to normalcy. The vaccine passports look more like transferring of responsibility from the states, which clearly do not know how to deal with the pandemic, to the individuals. We are moving towards a new division between “good” citizens - those vaccinated, having recovered, been tested, and on the other hand “immoral” citizens - unvaccinated, unwilling to be vaccinated or innately virus-resistant people. We are moving towards stigmatising “the different”, as well as those who do not want to fit into the “new reality”. And all this is done ostensibly in the name of simplification, in the name of our return to “normalcy”.

With or without a vaccine passport, the pandemic will pass away. Maybe not this year, but next year for sure. This is the natural course of things. Until then, however, measures such as “green” certificates will only deepen the total chaos in which humanity has already been living for the last 15 months.

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