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A Vaccine Passport Would Be an Ethical Disaster Right Now

For a country still struggling to vaccinate its people, vaccine passports solve the wrong problem. Private industry, desperate to reopen the economy, is pushing for them anyway.

A woman receives her second Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site at a senior center in San Antonio, Texas
Sergio Flores/Getty Images

Justin Amash, the dissident Michigan Republican-turned-libertarian member of the House of Representatives, said they’re “dystopian.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis believes they’re an unnecessary imposition on daily life. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has called them “Biden’s mark of the beast,” and for wayward intellectual Naomi Wolf, they represent “the absolute end of the line for human liberty in the West.” For Republicans and free thinkers of a certain bent, Covid-19 vaccine passports are the great new threat to personal freedom. But it’s not all extremists and eccentrics; there are legitimate concerns about how a vaccine-passport system would work, especially given a lack of universal standards, and they are reason enough—without invoking Satan—to call into question any such program.

Government and business appear to think otherwise. Ranging from technocratic-minded liberals to mouthpieces for the tourism industry, they seem to view vaccine passports as a potential savior, a way of jump-starting the global economy by providing ways for people to prove their vaccinated status, allowing them to travel, shop, attend sporting events, go to the gym, and perform other indoor activities that may now seem like distant memories to some. Drawing inspiration from immunization and vaccination documents that facilitate international travel, countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore have already introduced vaccine passports while the European Union is preparing “digital green certificates” to allow vaccinated people to move about the continent.

This week, New York State unveiled its Excelsior pass, digital vaccine documentation that is based on technology from IBM; other blue states may follow suit. At the federal level, various reports say that the Biden administration is coordinating with tech and health care companies but largely allowing them to take the lead on private initiatives like the Vaccine Credential Initiative, a project funded by a consortium of corporate partners–from Oracle to The MITRE Corporation, a nonprofit known, if at all, for its otherwise secretive national security work. “We want to encourage an open marketplace with a variety of private sector companies and nonprofit coalitions developing solutions,” said Biden spokesperson Jen Psaki. Just as with contact tracing and exposure apps—which Americans failed to adopt en masse—the rollout is haphazard, the technology unproven, and the privacy issues obvious. But vaccine passports are coming all the same.

Neither digital panacea nor totalitarian nightmare, the truth about vaccine passports lies somewhere between the feverish conspiracies of the far right and the neoliberal dream that for every problem, there’s an app-based solution. In reality, vaccine passports as currently rolled out fail tests of privacy and equity, but it’s the latter that might be most important and least discussed in certain policy circles. With an unequal health care system, limited vaccine access, and class-driven technological disparities, 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. As it is, in every state, Black people are receiving vaccinations at a lower rate than their share of the population. Similarly, the vaccination rate for Latinx people is 9 percent, compared to 19 percent for white people. Vaccine passports would only make these gaps more consequential. 

There’s also no accepted standard on what kind of access vaccine passports should allow—to what services? To what kinds of places? And how long will we need to maintain these passports?

“We’re not fully thinking about the implications,” said Adia Benton, an associate professor of anthropology at Northwestern University. “Do we already not have an insane number of administrative burdens and you’re going to create an administrative burden on the basis of a single vaccination?”

Rather than solving an existing problem, vaccine passports represent a failure of the country’s public health infrastructure to adequately address the pandemic. With infection rates spiking but vaccine access still limited, passports offer a chance for those fortunate enough to be vaccinated to resume semi-normal lives while the bulk of Americans endure lockdown conditions. And by largely handing the project off to private industry, the Biden administration once again gives in to the canard that government is incapable of handling big problems, especially surrounding public health. (Andy Slavitt, acting director for the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, recently said that the Biden administration “is not viewing its role as the place to create a passport or a place to hold the data of citizens”—a peculiar civil liberties-focused justification for a government that happily conducts mass surveillance here and abroad.)

These documents do raise privacy issues, particularly as the Biden administration leaves the problem to data-hungry tech companies like Microsoft, a member of the Vaccine Credential Initiative, to solve. Daily travel and purchases that might have once gone unrecorded may now be carefully tracked, potentially tied to consumer habits. “Some of these everyday life apps will create a new layer of digital infrastructure that was previously anonymous,” one expert told CNN.

One important reason why vaccination passports don’t make sense at this stage is that mass vaccinations are only beginning to roll out in many places. “There are people who are still entitled to but cannot access that vaccine,” said Benton, noting that vaccines required for schools and travel are generally freely available. The Covid-19 vaccination process has been complicated by the various racial and class inequities that define American health care. The problem extends globally, but there’s an obvious solution. As The New Republic’s Alex Pareene recently wrote, the United States could both advance its own interests and the public good by removing patent protection from U.S.-made vaccines and by donating excess doses to other countries. That would also accomplish goals in line with a vaccine passport: namely, spreading immunity and facilitating travel across borders.  

The underlying irony of vaccine passports is that, on closer examination, they seem less like a tool to keep people safe than to ensure that people can get out and generate economic activity again. Vaccine passports ostensibly offer rights but mostly of the neoliberal kind—a right to shop and spend. As Benton pointed out, these passports seem more like “a license to consume” with “roots in accessibility and scarcity.”

A vaccine passport seeks to incentivize compliance, but it will likely be another way to divide people and apportion access. Attempts to coerce compliance from vaccine denialists will only yield further backlash.

Vaccine passports claim to offer a shortcut to normalcy, but they’re more like a dead-end, a way of entrenching hierarchies of citizenship and access. There is no easy way to get back to normal except by building out the health care infrastructure and services that people need in this time of emergency. To solve the vaccine passport problem, we have to solve the issue of health care equity. “If we had equity, I don’t think we’d have this question about the vaccine passport,” said Benton. “This conversation would look very different.”