Tuesday, 20 Apr 2021

Opinion | Should You Be Worried About ‘Vaccine Passports’?

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Last Sunday, The Washington Post reported that the Biden administration was working with private companies to develop a standard way for verifying vaccine credentials, or what for months has been called “vaccine passports.” The response from Republican politicians was as swift as it was unsurprising: Within days, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota was tweeting about the “oppression” of Mr. Biden’s hypothetical program and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida was issuing an executive order prohibiting that state’s businesses from participating in it.

The @joebiden #CovidPassport proposal is one of the most un American ideas in our nation’s history. We as Americans should oppose this oppression.#freedom

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

The case for ‘vaccine passports’

The debate over vaccine credentials tends to conflate 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 someone has been vaccinated or tested negative before that person travels internationally. Some countries are already using this technology to screen travelers, and officials in the European Union hope to do so by the summer.

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

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

What’s the point? Some businesses, especially cruise lines, airlines and entertainment venues, are eager for a more efficient and potentially more fraud-resistant tool for screening health status than paper documentation, whether to assuage the concerns of their workers or the concerns of potential customers who might be averse to gathering in large groups with unvaccinated or untested people.

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

In greasing the wheels for reopening, proponents argue, vaccine passes could incentivize people to get inoculated. It wouldn’t be the first time the United States used the strategy: In the early 20th century, the historian Jordan E. Taylor notes in Time, employers, social clubs and ports of entry all across the country demanded proof of vaccination in an effort to stamp out smallpox — and it worked.

If vaccine passes and passports sound coercive, it’s because they are, Megan McArdle writes for The Washington Post. But even as a libertarian, she believes they’re justified: The point of herd immunity, after all, is to protect not only those who choose to forgo vaccines but also those whose immune systems can’t make use of them.

“Between cancer patients, transplant recipients and people receiving treatment for autoimmune diseases, a lot of Americans are on immunosuppressive drugs,” she writes. “Shouldn’t we worry more about them than about the people who choose to stay vulnerable to Covid-19?”

‘An ethical disaster right now’

Some of the fear-mongering about vaccine passports — like the comparisons to Nazi Germany — is easy enough to dismiss: Both the Biden administration and New York State have stressed that participation, like vaccination itself, will be voluntary. And as my colleague Hiroko Tabuchi has pointed out, the demand to “show your ‘health papers’” is one that Americans already tolerate when it’s made of travelers and immigrants.

Still, vaccine certification does pose some genuine ethical concerns. Most obvious is that there still isn’t nearly enough vaccine to go around, and access to it in the United States is sharply fractured along racial and class lines.

“With an unequal health care system, limited vaccine access, and class-driven technological disparities,” Jacob Silverman writes in The New Republic, “vaccine passports may end up being another tool for the rich to return to normal life while the people who are already being failed by our current systems of vaccine rollout find themselves left further out in the cold.”

Concerns about vaccine access are even more pressing when it comes to the global rollout, which has proved scandalously unequal: Only 0.1 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries.

“Vaccine passports that enable citizens of some nations to travel internationally while millions of others wait for vaccinations will serve only to deepen global inequities,” Saskia Popescu and Alexandra Phelan argue in The Times. “Any moves to institute vaccine passports must be coordinated internationally and should be coupled with global and equitable access to vaccines.”

The long run: Even once there are enough vaccines for everyone, there will remain a small but significant population of people who can’t generate immunity, as Ms. McArdle points out. And countless others, for whatever reason, are bound to simply refuse vaccination. At what point do their rights to bodily autonomy break even with the collective’s right to public health?

It’s not hard to imagine a future, perhaps just a few months from now, in which the United States has reached herd immunity but concert venues and even bars and restaurants continue to ask customers for their vaccination status. That would mark a real shift from the way we approach vaccines now: As Jay Stanley writes for the American Civil Liberties Union, “Nobody is demanding we provide proof of measles vaccination everywhere we go.”

Could vaccine certification backfire?

In National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty argues that widespread use of vaccine passes won’t actually help businesses reopen. “In fact, the first thing it would do is close things down, because it bars people from doing things they’ve already been doing throughout the pandemic: shopping, traveling, gathering together, attending weddings and funerals,” he writes. “You would be instituting new and harsher restrictions at the very time the pandemic was ending.”

Even the public-health case for vaccine certification isn’t rock solid. If people perceive the use of vaccine passes as a Democratic Party mandate, public opinion around vaccines could grow even further polarized. “I think the real risk, honestly, is going to be politicized misinformation,” Renée DiResta, a Stanford Internet Observatory disinformation expert, 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, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Stat.

What’s next

In the coming months, more countries that rely on tourism may embrace vaccine passports after the first nations pave the way. This week, Iceland is waiving its quarantine requirement for vaccinated travelers, and Thailand has said that it hopes to set a policy this summer for accepting vaccine passports.

But in the United States, vaccine passes are probably going to be a patchwork effort, as so much of our pandemic response has been. The White House has made clear that there will be no centralized federal vaccinations database or uniform credential besides the C.D.C. card. The rollout of New York’s app, for its part, has stumbled over reports of inaccurate record-keeping and buggy code. For better and for worse, the fantasy of a hyper-competent bio-surveillance state is a long way away.

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

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at debatable@nytimes.com. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


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

“How to Make ‘Immunity Passports’ More Ethical” [Scientific American]

“Israel’s ‘green pass’ is an early vision of how we leave lockdown” [MIT Technology Review]

“Cuomo’s Covid-19 Vaccine Passport Leaves Users Clueless About Privacy” [The Intercept]

“A Digital Covid-19 Vaccine Passport System Is Still Premature” [The Regulatory Review]


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

Chris from Oregon: “Before 2015, when weed was illegal here, buying from even a friend, you had no idea of its farming, strength, variety, or even quality. Now, I can research the farm it was grown on, check for desired varieties, know it’s been lab tested, and can choose by smell sometimes.”

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 the highways and local roads advertising dispensaries. I remember cigarettes being advertised in magazines and TV until they were banned for public health reasons. I hope we won’t be bombarded with advertisements. I worry about the message it’ll send to young people.”

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