By Audrey Tan

Vaccine passports or certificates have been around for decades to help people record and keep track of their vaccinations. With the recent rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, it’s the topic hot on everyone’s lips this year as vaccine passports are becoming the ticket to freedom in our new normal.

Governments are scrambling to provide digital and paper certificates to prove immunisation to put an end to suffocating restrictions and restore life to pre-pandemic days—but you will only get to enjoy this luxury if you are fully vaccinated. 

Global Vaccine Passports Trials 

Information about our Coronavirus vaccination status, either on paper or encoded on a chip, is increasingly seen as the solution to break free after more than a year of pandemic induced lockdowns. 

Over half of the member states of the European Union have begun issuing COVID-19 vaccine passports for travel. At the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship this year, sports fans used vaccine passports via the National Health Service (NHS) app for the first time in England to attend matches as part of the government’s large event trials. 

English fans could enjoy a hassle-free experience through the NHS app, but Scottish fans were required to do a lateral flow test or apply for a COVID status vaccination letter. Welsh supporters also had to apply for a vaccination certificate, which took about ten days to arrive. 

Other events part of the UK trials included the World Snooker Championship, a race at Hatfield House with mass participation in attendance, and numerous other social events in Liverpool such as a cinema screening in the city, a business conference, and an evening at a nightclub.

Starting this month, the government in Tokyo has agreed with five countries in the EU to exempt Japanese travellers carrying vaccine passports from entry restrictions and quarantine requirements. They are also in talks with more countries. The land of the rising sun is basing its approach on the COVID certification system used by the European Union, which is itself still in the experimental stage. 

Are They Discriminatory?

But what can and can’t a person do depending on whether or not they have been vaccinated? Will the type of vaccine have any impact on these passports? Do we need yet another label to set us apart from each other? Will COVID vaccine passports exacerbate an already ongoing problem in our society that’s been in an uphill battle with discrimination and inequality?  

Unsurprisingly, vaccine passports’ introduction ignites contentious political and ethical debates surrounding inequality, discrimination, privacy, and fraud. Implementing and ensuring it operates smoothly on a global scale is another daunting challenge. Brits, for instance, are witnessing their leaders walking on thin ice as they grapple with legal and technical issues. 

Ongoing debates continue on whether the use of vaccine passports could disproportionately discriminate based on age, race, religion, and socio-economic background, as highlighted by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). The committee warns that current vaccine uptake statistics show that introducing any form of COVID certification system is a bad idea, as it is bound to become a discriminator regarding these socio-economic factors.

Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) strongly encourages administrations to recognise the potential of vaccine passports exacerbating ongoing imbalances in our society by promoting differential freedom of movement. 

Vaccine Access Inequality

Issuing vaccine certificates is not the controversy here, but using them to decide whether individuals can or cannot participate in social activities is. While they could encourage more people to get vaccinated, they could also aggravate the divide between conflicting viewpoints and violate people’s freedom of choice. How?

No one should be forced to obtain a vaccination against their will in any way. It isn’t free will if people are threatened with continued loss of freedom or told they wouldn’t be able to go to the pub or restaurant unless they can prove they are vaccinated. 

Besides all this, as these vaccination certificates increasingly become a reality, police departments in various jurisdictions warn officials about the rise of counterfeit certs. 

In Germany, criminals have begun selling fake vaccination documents, and the problem appears to be persistent. These forgeries could be used by potentially contagious individuals to escape mandatory travel quarantine or testing or allow participation in social events that would usually require a negative COVID test, thus spreading the virus and harming others. 

As a community, we all want to return to some semblance of normality. The vaccine that most of us have been waiting for is finally here, and it is a method that could help us get our lives back and boost international travel. But do we really need to further divide our volatile society into who’s vaccinated and who’s not? 

If current immunisations aren’t effective or fail to keep up with the appearance of new strains of the virus, is all this arguing worth it? Let us know what you think in the comments below.