Vaccine Passports, Covid’s Next Political Flash Point
A world divided between the vaccinated and unvaccinated promises relief for economies and families, but the ethical and practical risks are high.
By Max Fisher
The next major flash point over coronavirus response has already provoked cries of tyranny and discrimination in Britain, protests in Denmark, digital disinformation in the United States and geopolitical skirmishing within the European Union.
The subject of debate: vaccine passports — government-issued cards or smartphone badges stating that the bearer has been inoculated against the coronavirus.
The idea is to allow families to reunite, economies to restart and hundreds of millions of people who have received a shot to return to a degree of normalcy, all without spreading the virus. Some versions of the documentation might permit bearers to travel internationally. Others would allow entry to vaccinated-only spaces like gyms, concert venues and restaurants.
While such passports are still hypothetical in most places, Israel became the first to roll out its own last week, capitalizing on its high vaccination rate. Several European countries are considering following. President Biden has asked federal agencies to explore options. And some airlines and tourism-reliant industries and destinations expect to require them.
Dividing the world between the vaccinated and unvaccinated raises daunting political and ethical questions. Vaccines go overwhelmingly to rich countries and privileged racial groups within them. Granting special rights for the vaccinated, while tightening restrictions on the unvaccinated, risks widening already-dangerous social gaps.
Vaccine skepticism, already high in many communities, shows signs of spiking if shots become seen as government-mandated. Plans also risk exacerbating Covid nationalism: sparring among nations to advance their citizens’ self-interest over global good.
“Immunity passports promise a way to go back to a more normal social and economic life,” Nicole Hassoun and Anders Herlitz, who study public health ethics, wrote in Scientific American. But with vaccines distributed unequally by race, class and nationality, “it is not obvious that they are ethical.”
Still, there are clear upsides: grandparents reuniting with out-of-town grandchildren; sports, concerts and other events partly but safely returning; resumption of international travel and some tourism; businesses reopened without putting workers at undue risk.
All of that is why, Drs. Hassoun and Herlitz wrote, vaccine documents “may be inevitable.”
Widening Society’s Divides
Some countries require proof of vaccination — for example, against yellow fever — to enter. So do schools and day-care facilities in many American states.
But there is little precedent for society-wide restrictions. And by limiting services to people with the proper paperwork, governments would effectively mandate vaccination to use them.
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