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Vaccine passports the only way out of this pandemic

A customer prepares to present a COVID-19 vaccination certificate on entering a restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Getty Images)
A customer prepares to present a COVID-19 vaccination certificate on entering a restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Getty Images)
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13 Apr 2021 05:04:40 GMT9
13 Apr 2021 05:04:40 GMT9

The issue of the likely use of vaccine passports in the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is prompting questions about whether or not they work. The point of a vaccine passport is, in theory, to mitigate disease spread by introducing a system of checks and balances to bring about herd immunity. A debate over their perceived invasion of privacy versus medical necessity is now playing out in many countries around the world. At the heart of the argument is their requirement for human security.

The requirement to be vaccinated against certain diseases ahead of travel and the related documentation is not new. Proof of vaccination adds a layer of protection for travelers and for human security. An individual with proof of their vaccination is less likely to spread the pathogen than one who does not. Other diseases require proof of immunization, so this issue is about COVID-19 requiring the same “paperwork.” Proof of yellow fever immunization is already needed for travel to countries like Ghana and Brazil. Yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes, while COVID-19 is transmitted through the air, but the concept is the same. Thus, the requirement for a vaccination not only protects the patient, but also keeps part of the transmission chain blocked. That aspect helps protect human security during travel and in daily life.

While the concept of vaccination for travel is not new, the nature of COVID-19 complicates movement much further. Yellow fever requirements work quite well, although the system is not perfect because the infection itself is not the most common among travelers. However, COVID-19 is highly transmissible and affects every country in the world, their border controls, and interactions in urban areas. Having some form of documentation for human security is unavoidable. If one argues that not having a document is part of one’s freedoms, then the definition of human security is corrupted. Human rights activists are misusing the definition of human security and actually making the arguments about vaccination documents harmful to all people.

Human security is already corrupted by those seeking to buck the system because of misperceptions.

Old thinking needs to be replaced by sane scientific necessity. There are already fake COVID-19 vaccination cards and other documents sold online by those taking advantage of human security requirements. These criminals are enabled by the civil liberties debate.

Stopping these instances of fraud is a major argument for making these passports digital, but some say such technology brings up issues of privacy as a threat to human security. This type of thinking is backwards when it comes to a pathogen like COVID-19. Human security demands that smartphones be available to all to show vaccination rates and tabulation. It is extremely important with this specific pathogen to tabulate inoculations for human security purposes. If you do not collect this type of data, the pathogen and its mutations may outpace the vaccination rate.

What does this all mean? It means that the argument that using vaccine passports for COVID-19 is only for privileged people who are fortunate enough to have gained early access is a highly questionable one, which masks the need for such measures. The claim that minorities or low-income individuals cannot participate in such technology is also a bunk argument. Cities and towns have programs that distribute mobile phones to these parts of society. Homeless people are given mobile phones for their own safety. Using this technology helps human security and provides the rationale for keeping documentation about people’s medical history, especially vaccinations.

Countries across the globe are beginning to use vaccine passports to allow their citizens to travel once again. China has unveiled its digital vaccine passport, which is to be accessed via an app that allows people to verify their vaccination status with a scannable QR code. Japan has announced plans for a similar digital passport. The EU says it backs a “Digital Green Certificate,” which would allow citizens who have proof that they have been vaccinated, received a negative coronavirus test result or have recovered from COVID-19 to travel across all 27 member states.

It is extremely important with this specific pathogen to tabulate inoculations for human security purposes.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Moreover, with the air transit system slated to open further over the coming months, vaccination passports will become important for international travel. Australia, Denmark and Sweden are committed to their implementation. Israel, which leads the world in per-capita vaccinations, is already issuing “green passes” to vaccinated residents. According to research, although travel eligibility has so far been the primary focus for such passports, the documents are also being used to regulate access to social and recreational gatherings, workplaces or schools. Israel’s green passes, for instance, permit entry to otherwise restricted sites like hotels, gyms, restaurants and music venues. New York’s “Excelsior Pass” permits attendance at theaters, arenas, event venues and large wedding gatherings.

In the US, the Biden administration has ruled out the introduction of federal vaccine passports because of the country’s values system, which enshrines freedom and liberty. That may be a mistake that exposes the US to at least three more waves and slows down the country’s recovery. America’s peer competitors are noting this development. Human security needs to be addressed in the appropriate way: By emphasizing vaccine passports or other similar documentation. There is no other way out.

  • Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC. He is a former RAND Corporation senior political scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues. Twitter: @tkarasik
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