As more governments reflect on vaccine passports, critics raise fears of discrimination

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As vaccinations accelerate around the world, the idea of ​​”vaccine passports” is gaining traction among governments and industries looking for a way out of closures, curfews and travel bans. But while some see it as a potential ticket to freedom, others fear that such documentation could exclude or discriminate against those most vulnerable by the pandemic.

With vaccinations well underway, governments are increasingly seeing vaccination “passports” – or other forms of Covid-19 status certificates – as a way out of the cycles of closures and curfews that have many prisoners in their own homes and at a nearby stopover.

The certificates would allow people to show proof of vaccination and thus bypass quarantine protocols when arriving in a new country.

Some countries have already introduced such policies, with Iceland becoming the first European country to issue vaccine certificates at the end of January. Greece unveiled a digital vaccination certificate on Tuesday for those who have received two doses of the vaccine. Countries that currently issue or request vaccine certificates include Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden .

Across the Channel, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Monday that his government would view Covid-19 “status certificates” as a way out of the health crisis.

But Johnson also sought to allay fears that the certificates could marginalize those who cannot receive the Covid-19 injection, saying that a UK government review would be “aware of the many concerns surrounding exclusion, discrimination and private life”.

Ana Beduschi, associate professor of law at the UK University of Exeter who published a study on the ethics of vaccine passports, said there were serious questions about their impact on human rights and data protection.

“Arguably [vaccine passports] could preserve the freedoms of those who do not have the disease or who have been vaccinated, ”Beduschi said. “However, if some people cannot access or afford Covid-19 tests or vaccines, they will not be able to prove their state of health and therefore their freedoms will be de facto restricted.”

These same problems were pointed out in a study released Friday by the Royal Society, in which researchers recommended governments urgently consider key criteria for vaccination certification. Criteria include certification of immunity, data protection, and protection against job losses if people were not vaccinated for health reasons or personal beliefs.

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“We’re not advocating for or against, but we say it’s coming. Countries have already introduced it, companies are already saying they will integrate it into their contracts. We need to openly open this opening and discuss it, ”said Professor Melinda Mills, lead author of the study and director of the Leverhulme Center for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford.

France is holding back

But while some countries advance, others hold back. In France, the debate on the certification of vaccines polarized opinion.

The Minister of Health, Olivier Véran, has repeated on several occasions that it is too early to discuss vaccination passports since less than 2.5 million French people have received a first dose and because it is still not known whether the vaccine prevents transmission.

This is a view shared by Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium as well as by organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Commission.

French Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune told Franceinfo news channel on January 17 that the government was “very reluctant” to introduce vaccination passports. He said he would not support a program that gave rights to some people and not to others.

Asked about a passport that would allow vaccinated people to attend cultural events, the French Minister of Culture Roselyne Bachelot was unequivocal in her disapproval, saying that it would be “an attack on our freedoms”.

“As a freedom lover, I can hardly imagine it. If so, it would be a step backwards, ”she told France 2 during an interview on February 10.

But six in 10 French people would be in favor of a vaccination passport if it allowed them to move more freely, according to an Ifop poll last month.

No consensus in the EU

There is still no consensus on the issue within the EU, despite increasing pressure from some member states keen to revive tourism.

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The European Commission says it will not be rushed into a passport decision until such a large proportion of its population is vaccinated. In the EU, only around 3% of Europeans have received a Covid-19 inoculation.

Instead, the 27 EU member states are sticking to an agreement reached on January 28 on a set of principles for ‘COVID-19 vaccination certificates’.

These certificates provide standardized proof of vaccination “for medical purposes” and can be used in the event that a person receives a second dose of the vaccine in a different country from where they received the first.

But these documents do not allow the vaccinated to travel freely in Europe.

Save tourism

Unsurprisingly, the travel industry is pushing for some sort of vaccination passport after suffering crushing losses from the pandemic. Some airlines, like Australian carrier Qantas, have said they will make vaccine documentation mandatory on all flights, while Gulf Air, Emirates and Etihad will test a travel pass designed by the International Air Transport Association. , the IATA Travel Pass.

European tourism enjoyed huge success last year with a record drop in arrivals from 51% to 85%, according to the European Travel Commission.

Hopes of a return to a new normal in 2021 have been dashed with the reintroduction of lockdowns and European-wide curfews. In its latest international forecast, IATA predicts that Europe will be hardest hit by the aviation fallout in 2021, with an expected loss of $ 11.9 billion.

Other companies are also eyeing digital passports – such as concert halls, sports stadiums, theaters and gyms – to reassure customers and prevent the spread of the virus. Israel said its version of a vaccine passport, the green badge, would be used to allow its citizens access to places of worship, gymnasiums, bars and other cultural events.

Global standards

Even as governments look to certification to help them reopen businesses and social life, great challenges remain if the program is to gain traction globally. For its part, the WHO has declared itself opposed “for the moment” to the introduction of vaccination certificates as a condition allowing international travelers to enter other countries.

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However, experts like Dakota Gruener of the ID2020 global public-private partnership are currently working with WHO to establish global proposals and standards. Gruener said two proposals were likely to be considered: one a document showing proof of a negative Covid-19 test and the second showing that you have been vaccinated. A downloadable QR code would allow access but for those without a smartphone, paper versions would be accepted.

A similar proposal was launched late last year when the World Economic Forum and the Commons Project Foundation, a Swiss nonprofit group, began testing a digital health passport called CommonPass that generated a QR code that could be shown to authorities during border checks.

Privacy and inequalities

It seems inevitable that some form of certificate or passport will become a prerequisite for people to fully participate in public life again.

Alison Thompson, bioethicist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, said that while vaccine passports may seem inevitable, that shouldn’t prevent serious and ongoing debate about how they are used.

“In reality, what we are talking about here is allowing people with passport rights and privileges that will not be available to people who do not have a vaccination passport,” she said in a statement. interview with TBEN Radio.

“And given that there are huge inequalities in access to vaccines around the world … you know, it raises all kinds of concerns about whether it’s going to be fair – not just whether it’s going to be confidential information.” . “

Ultimately, she said, the decision will be up to lawmakers. But she said it would “take a careful look at the discrimination law and the basic human rights law to see how you might use this kind of technology appropriately.”

As countries grapple with new strains of the virus, delays in vaccine supply, logistical hurdles and economic fallout, it looks certain that the debate over vaccine passports will only become more urgent.

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