Vaccine doses are being distributed by the millions. Demand for vaccine passports grows while experts warn of severe ethical and medical consequences.
Rabat – COVID-19 vaccination campaigns around the world have reached hundreds of millions of people. Since the Sinopharm and AstraZeneca vaccines became available to Morocco in January, around 2.41 million Moroccans have received doses. Health professionals in the US have administered 66 million doses since mid-December. Nearly 19 million people have received the vaccine in the UK.
Governments, businesses, and individuals are now navigating a partially-vaccinated world. As bars and borders begin to reopen, “vaccine passports,” an identification system for vaccinated individuals to access travel, work, and leisure activities, seem to be an attractive option to restore some pre-pandemic liberties.
Why a vaccine passport?
While unquestionably vital, stay-at-home measures, social distancing, and travel quarantines have caused extreme fatigue. As months of unrelenting restrictions tally up, a vaccine passport provides a pathway out of paralyzing seclusion.
Without an identification system to distinguish vaccinated and unvaccinated citizens, governments must uniformly enforce COVID-19 restrictions. Under current regulations in Agadir, Casablanca, and Marrakech, even vaccinated groups are unable to gather. A vaccine passport would restore a sense of normalcy for those whose risk of COVID-19 transmission is extremely low.
As citizens desire vaccine certificates to improve their quality of life, governments and businesses hope to capitalize on their economic benefits. COVID-19 abruptly halted commonplace leisure activities. If individuals can begin safely repopulating travel destinations, businesses can expect a significant uptick in revenue. This would bring economic revitalization which is desperately needed; Morocco’s tourism sector lost MAD 18.2 billion ($2 billion) in the first seven months of 2020, most businesses of which have yet to recuperate.
What are the potential harms of a vaccine passport?
Countries around the world have hinted at an upcoming vaccine passport, yet experts warn against discrimination against unvaccinated individuals.
Despite the impressive volume of doses distributed each day in many countries, no government has had the supply or capacity to fully vaccinate their citizenry. Additionally, suspicion of the vaccine in certain communities holds steady.
According to a poll the World Economic Forum conducted, only 40% of French citizens and 53% of South Africans want the vaccine. Governments around the world are reluctant to mandate vaccination, so many will voluntarily or involuntarily remain unvaccinated.
The creation of a vaccinated class is inevitable; some experts suspect discrimination against the unvaccinated is soon to follow.
Bioethicist and University of Toronto Associate Professor Alison Thompson told CBC Radio, “What we’re talking about here is allowing people with passports rights and privileges that won’t be available to people who don’t have a vaccine passport. And given that there are huge inequities in access to vaccines globally … this raises all kinds of concerns about whether this is going to be fair.”
Some officials warn that discussion of vaccine passports is premature, given that the efficacy of vaccines against different strains of COVID-19 is uncertain. Dominique Le Guludec, president of the French National Authority for Health (HAS), argues a vaccine passport “does not make sense” insofar as “we do not know if the vaccine blocks the transmission of the virus.”
If governments issue vaccine passports to individuals whose vaccines do not effectively block COVID-19 transmission, crowded pubs, concert halls, and sports stadiums will diffuse the virus at high rates.
What comes next?
In evaluating these benefits and harms, many governments have openly supported the future creation and distribution of vaccine passports.
In December, Moroccan Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb stressed that Moroccans will be unable to travel abroad in the future without a vaccine passport.
Iceland was the first country to begin distributing vaccine certificates, beginning January 21.
US President Joe Biden issued a directive to government agencies to “assess the feasibility” of creating vaccination certificates.
President of the European Union Commission Ursula von der Leyen has supported creating EU-wide vaccine certificates to be issued by member states.
As vaccinations become more widely available, governments must decide how they will distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated citizens. If they choose to offer vaccine passports, they will have to strike a balance between newly granted liberties and potential discrimination against those who remain unvaccinated.