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Opinion |  Should you be worried about “vaccine passports”?

This article is part of the Debatable newsletter. You can register here to receive it on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Last Sunday, the Washington Post reported that the Biden administration was working with private companies to develop a standard way to verify vaccine credentials, or what for months were called “vaccine passports.” The response from Republican politicians was as swift as it was unsurprising: Within days, Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota tweeted about the “oppression” of Mr. Biden’s hypothetical agenda and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has issued a decree prohibiting state enterprises from participating.

But to focus the debate on the vaccine passport through the familiar prism of the “culture war”, as it is called, is to miss a very large part of the subject, which is public health, and where the right balance is between it and civil liberties. How much partisan noise is the vaccine passport rhetoric, and where are there legitimate justifications and concerns? Here is what people are saying.

The debate over vaccine credentials tends to confuse two similar but distinct types of immunity certification: passports and passes.

How they work:

  • Vaccine passports take the form of scannable QR codes, issued by smartphone apps, that confirm whether a person has been vaccinated or tested negative before that person travels abroad. Some countries are already using this technology to screen travelers, and European Union officials hope to do so by the summer.

  • Vaccine passes work much the same as vaccine passports, but could be used for household activities such as concerts, weddings, or even work. Vaccine passes are already in use in Israel, and last week New York became the first state in the country to launch its own app, called the Excelsior Pass, in partnership with IBM.

“Think of it this way,” writes Elise Taylor for Vogue. “A vaccination passport works like your real passport. A health pass is more like your driver’s license. What you should get out depends on where you are or where you are going. “

What’s the point? Some businesses, especially cruise lines, airlines, and entertainment venues, want a more efficient and potentially more fraud-resistant tool for checking health than paper documentation, whether to allay concerns. of their workers or those of potential customers who might be. refuse to gather in large groups with unvaccinated or untested people.

In New York, companies have an additional economic incentive: since April 2, entertainment venues have been able to accommodate up to 100 people indoors and up to 200 people outdoors. But if the sites require proof of a negative coronavirus test or vaccination, those limits drop to 150 and 500. (Mask wearing and social distancing are still required.)

By greasing the wheels for the reopening, proponents say, vaccine passes could encourage people to get vaccinated. It wouldn’t be the first time the United States had used this strategy: At the turn of the 20th century, historian Jordan E. Taylor notes in Time, employers, social clubs, and entry points across the country required proof of vaccination in an effort. to eradicate smallpox – and it worked.

If the vaccine passes and the passports seem coercive, it is because they are, Megan McArdle writes for the Washington Post. But even as a libertarian, she thinks they are justified: the purpose of herd immunity, after all, is to protect not only those who choose to forgo vaccines, but also those whose immune systems cannot. use.

“Between cancer patients, transplant recipients and people undergoing treatment for autoimmune diseases, a parcel of Americans are taking immunosuppressive drugs, ”she writes. “Shouldn’t we be more worried about them than the people who choose to remain vulnerable to Covid-19?”

Some of the fear-mongering about vaccine passports – like comparisons to Nazi Germany – are easy enough to dismiss: the Biden administration and New York State have pointed out that participation, like the vaccination itself, would be voluntary. And like my colleague Hiroko Tabuchi highlighted, the demand to “show your ‘health papers'” is the one Americans already tolerate when it comes to travelers and immigrants.

However, the certification of vaccines poses real ethical problems. Most obviously, there are still not enough vaccines for everyone, and access to it in the United States is heavily divided along racial and class lines.

“With an uneven health care system, limited access to vaccines and technological disparities based on class,” writes Jacob Silverman in The New Republic, “vaccine passports may become another tool for the wealthy to return to a living. normal while those already failed by our current vaccine deployment systems are more left behind. “

Concerns about access to vaccines are even more pressing when it comes to global deployment, which turned out to be shockingly uneven: only 0.1 percent of doses were given in low-income countries.

“Vaccine passports that allow citizens of some countries to travel abroad while millions of others wait to be vaccinated will only serve to worsen global inequalities,” Saskia Popescu and Alexandra Phelan say in The Times . “Any initiative to institute vaccine passports must be coordinated at the international level and must be associated with global and equitable access to vaccines.”

The long term: Even after there are enough vaccines for everyone, there will be a small but large population of people who will not be able to generate immunity, as McArdle points out. And countless others, for whatever reason, are required to simply refuse vaccination. When does their right to bodily autonomy break with the collective right to public health?

It’s not hard to imagine a future, perhaps in a few months, in which the United States will have achieved collective immunity, but concert halls and even bars and restaurants continue to ask customers for their vaccination status. This would mark a real change from our current approach to vaccines: as Jay Stanley writes for the American Civil Liberties Union, “No one asks that we provide proof of measles vaccination wherever we go.

In National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty argues that the widespread use of vaccine passes won’t actually help businesses reopen. “In fact, the first thing he would do would be shut down, because it prevents people from doing what they have already done throughout the pandemic: shopping, traveling, gathering, attending events. weddings and funerals, ”he wrote. “You would institute new, tougher restrictions just as the pandemic ended.”

Even the public health case for vaccine certification is not strong. If people perceive the use of the vaccine as a mandate of the Democratic Party, public opinion around vaccines could become even more polarized. “I think the real risk, honestly, will be politicized disinformation,” Renée DiResta, a disinformation expert at the Stanford Internet Observatory, told The Times.

And while all the vaccines available in the United States are highly effective, no vaccine is foolproof. “The biggest concern I have is a false sense of security,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Stat.

In the coming months, more tourism-dependent countries may adopt vaccine passports after first nations lead the way. This week, Iceland waived its quarantine requirement for vaccinated travelers, and Thailand said it hoped to set a policy this summer to accept vaccine passports.

But in the United States, vaccine passes will likely be a patchwork effort, like much of our response to the pandemic. The White House has made it clear that there will be no centralized federal immunization database or uniform supporting documentation in addition to the CDC card. The New York app rollout, for its part, stumbled upon reports of inaccurate record keeping and buggy code. For better or for worse, the fantasy of a hyper-competent biomonitoring state is far away.

“Despite years of debate, Americans cannot agree on whether identification should be required to exercise the fundamental right of democracy, and there is no system to make sure everyone has ID, ”writes Politico’s Ryan Heath. “The idea that a parallel and mandatory system will emerge within months for vaccine certification is optimistic at best.”

Do you have a point of view that we missed? Write to us at Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.

“What are the ethics behind the Covid-19 ‘immunity passports’?” [The Washington Post]

“How to make” immunity passports “more ethical” [Scientific American]

“Israel’s ‘green pass’ is a first look at how we are leaving the lockdown” [MIT Technology Review]

‘Cuomo’s Covid-19 Vaccine Passport Leaves Users Unaware of Privacy’ [The Intercept]

“A digital passport system for Covid-19 vaccines is still premature” [The Regulatory Review]

Here’s what readers had to say about the latest debate: Can New York provide a model for the legalization of marijuana?

Chris from Oregon: “Before 2015, when weed was illegal here, buying even from a friend, you had no idea how much it was grown, how strong, how diverse, or even how good. Now I can research the farm it was grown on, check the varieties I want, know that it has been lab tested, and sometimes I can choose by smell.

Elvira from New York: “In 2019, my family and I stayed in the Palm Springs area of ​​California. I was shocked at the number of billboards along local highways and roads advertising dispensaries. I remember cigarettes being advertised in magazines and on television until they were banned for public health reasons. I hope we will not be bombarded with advertisements. I’m worried about the message this will send to young people. “

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