By David Helfrich
Source: The Pulse
Whether it’s a restaurant in Quebec or a hotel in Portugal, you will now need to furnish a Covid-19 vaccine passport verifying vaccination status prior to entering these spaces. Proponents of the vaccine passports argue that these health passes allow businesses to re-open in key economic sectors while encouraging vaccination that will benefit public health. Critics of these passports – which are often utilized in the form of a digital health pass – argue that there are considerable ethical, technical, and scientific challenges that render Covid-19 vaccine passports both impracticable and unequitable.
Covid-19 vaccine passports raise serious questions about the commitment society has for fundamental rights surrounding bodily autonomy and integrity: the concept that each human being has autonomy and self-determination over their own body.
While it is true that vaccine mandates have been around for quite some time, and have been administered as requirements for children to attend public school and are sometimes required to travel to parts of the world where viruses like diphtheria and yellow fever are prevalent, mandating Covid-19 vaccines as a universal requirement for travel, employment and/or access to broader public services and benefits is breaking new ground with regards to removing choice by compelling one to take a vaccine in order to participate in the broader economy and access opportunity.
Regardless of one’s personal view on the Covid-19 vaccines (I personally chose to get vaccinated to mitigate the chance of infection and transmission to more vulnerable populations), this is an area where our principles are challenged. Do we really stand for the concept of “my body; my choice” – or do we only rally for this principle when it appeals to our politics/personal beliefs?
Ironically, many who do not recognize the right for a woman to exercise autonomy over her reproductive choices are now claiming the right to exercise bodily autonomy to make their own medical decisions. Conversely, many pro-choice activists are now mocking those who refuse the vaccine by claiming that they don’t have the right to bodily autonomy in this instance because their decision affects other people — which is exactly the argument pro-life activists rely upon (claiming that a pregnant woman is making a decision that affects the unborn) in their attempts to deny a woman’s right to choose.
While the more efficacious vaccines have proven to be instrumental in both mitigating infection rates as well as severe disease should a breakthrough infection occur, not all vaccines are created equal. The current Covid-19 vaccines in use around the world vary significantly with regards to efficacy, durability, and their respective capacity to protect against emergent strains.
Presumably, a passenger from the United States vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine and a second passenger from Chile vaccinated with the Sinopharm vaccine may be considered “fully vaccinated” – depending on one’s definition – despite the fact that the latter vaccine features efficacy that is but a fraction of the former’s.
Access to the more efficacious vaccines remains scarce and is driven by economic, political, and geographic factors creating a special luxury travel class for vaccinated travelers hailing from high-income countries, while disadvantaging travelers from low-income countries and/or regions with little or no access to effective vaccines. This creates a glaring disparity that limits one’s ability to move about the world, access opportunity, and visit loved ones, exacerbating global inequities that disproportionately affect communities that have already been ravaged by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, particularly in the Global South.
Before any vaccine passport system can be equitably rolled out, the problem of universal access must be solved. Even in high-income countries where an inordinate amount of resources have been thrown at vaccine rollout efforts to ensure wide access, alarming health disparities based on race continues to persist. In the US, Black and Brown communities continue to have lower SARS-CoV-2 vaccine rates compared to the overall population, and their historic (and often well-founded) distrust of the for-profit health system should not prevent them from enjoying basic rights, accessing opportunity, and engaging in much needed social activity after over a year of isolation and lockdowns that have taken a toll on our collective physical/mental health and well-being.
Additionally, vaccine passports pose significant privacy concerns and raise a myriad of complex problems and moral conundrums as it pertains to civil liberties, surveillance, and mobility that aren’t easily resolved. From Verizon’s attempt to deploy thermal cameras to detect fevers in football stadiums to New York’s IBM “Excelsior Pass” app that leverages blockchain technology to prove that you’ve been vaccinated, tech companies are scrambling to cash out on innovative ways to peer into our private lives while undermining our civil liberties. Without a strong commitment to legal protections for privacy, the data that will be collected by big tech companies every time our vaccine passport credentials are shared will inevitably be sold for commercial purposes and even shared with law enforcement, which would lead to further burdens on over-policed communities. The prospect of being tracked in this manner would not only further isolate communities that should be encouraged to access public benefits and spaces, but could also presumably further undermine public confidence in even getting the vaccine to begin with.
There is historical precedent for how a crisis has been used to curtail civil liberties and basic freedoms. Just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Congress took advantage of the widespread fear and panic to pass the Patriot Act, expanding its authority to spy on its own citizens. Despite the Patriot Act being touted as an essential tool to combat terrorism, the Department of Justice itself admitted (in 2015) that the Patriot Act failed to help solve any major terrorism cases whatsoever. Despite this, it has taken immense efforts to try and salvage even a fraction of the civil liberties that the Patriot Act sought to undermine. Once such liberties are curtailed, it can become exceedingly difficult to reclaim them.
Without famed whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 disclosures revealing the scope and scale of mass government surveillance, we may still be in the dark about how these immense government powers have been abused. Now, Snowden (along with many other civil liberties experts) warn that pandemic powers seized during this global health health crisis will be used to build a new “architecture of oppression” that could see liberal democracies transformed into autocratic countries imposing social credit scores, widescale restrictions on movement, and draconian censorship on free speech and expression.
When we ponder the real-world utility of implementing a Covid-19 Vaccine Passport — the question must be asked: Who will benefit most from this immensely complicated and inequitable proposition? Will it be the public health and civil liberty of the global population? Will it be Big Tech companies leveraging new surveillance technology? Will it be governments infringing upon data privacy rights? There are always unintended (and intended) consequences to such measures that must be thoroughly scrutinized, debated, and considered prior to enactment.
Particularly in the United States, vaccination status has become yet another tribal rift in a society replete with identity divisions and divergent opinion as it pertains to just about everything. Regardless of one’s view on how best to achieve the expeditious end to this global pandemic, perhaps a universal rallying call delivering a message to world governments to respect civil liberties and address global inequities would be a unique area where the tapestry of humanity can coalesce to stand for both the rights of the individual and the collective, rebuking those over-reaching forces that aim to exploit a crisis by curtailing hard-fought civil liberty gains at every turn.
Dive deeper with this conversation: The Glaring Issues With Vaccine Passports