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COVID-19 Passport raises ‘ethics questions’

  • Category
    Ethics
  • Published
    15th Mar, 2021

Governments around the globe, are debating the idea of requiring ‘COVID-19 vaccine passports’, raising ethical concerns about those who would get left behind.

Context

Governments around the globe, are debating the idea of requiring ‘COVID-19 vaccine passports’, raising ethical concerns about those who would get left behind.

Background

  • Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the world had become a much smaller place, spurred by the Internet and connectivity, as well as travel. 
  • However, things have changed, at least temporarily, since March of 2020.
  • Though internet helped to keep the whole world connected, international travel has been decimated.
  • For the purposes of facilitating international travel for tourism and business, governments in different countries are developing plans for a digital vaccine passport.
  • However, COVID-19 passport raises various ethical issues and could exacerbate global inequities.
  • Dividing the world between the vaccinated and unvaccinated raises daunting political and ethical questions. 

Analysis

What is a COVID-19 vaccine passport?

  • A vaccine passport would be a form of documentation (likely digital) that would allow people to prove to border officials or another gatekeeper that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
  • The idea behind a vaccine passport is that it would allow a person to resume activities that are now restricted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

WHO’s stand on vaccine passport

  • World Health Organisation is of the opinion that 'vaccine passports' for COVID-19 should not be used for international travel because of numerous concerns, including ethical considerations that coronavirus vaccines are not easily available globally.
  • WHO is of the belief that vaccination is just not available enough around the world and is not available certainly on an equitable basis.

Who is using vaccine passports?

  • Israel became the first country to introduce a certification system. The country’s system is designed to allow an individual with the ‘passport’ access to facilities and services such as hotels, restaurants, gyms, and workplaces.
    • The primary proponents of this system are the tourism and hospitality sectors who’ve faced the brunt of the pandemic.
  • Thailand, a popular tourism destination, moved a step closer to issuing vaccine certificates.
  • China also introduced the first “virus passports” in a bid to boost international travel. 
  • United States and the European Union are also considering similar programmes. 

Other important initiatives

  • IATA Travel Pass: So far, the International Air Transport Association — the global trade body representing airlines — is developing an app called IATA Travel Pass that will provide airlines and other aviation industry stakeholders with a common platform to check for the proof of vaccination and its validity.
  • Commons Project: Another initiative, Commons Project is trying out an app called CommonPass, which contains a passenger’s vaccination record.

What are India’s plans?

  • While India does not yet have plans for an Israel-like robust vaccine passport system, many are viewing the vaccine certificates as a document that can be used to ease travel restrictions.
  • Several states have mandated COVID-19 negative certificates based on RT-PCR tests for those travelling within India.
  • Those receiving the first vaccine jabs in India are currently receiving a provisional certificate and the final certificate is given only after the second dose.
  • Various states are considering the vaccination certificates as a driver of the tourism industry that has suffered major losses in the recent past.

What are the pros and cons of COVID-19 vaccine passport?

Pros

  • Regain normalcy: A COVID-19 vaccine passport allows holders to regain normalcy in their lives while feeling confident they would not infect anyone.
  • Encourage to get vaccinated: It can also encourage hesitant people to get the shot.

Cons

  • Range of issues: They could result in discrimination and fraud, encourage risky behavior when the coronavirus is still raging, and be a privacy minefield. 
  • Widened social gaps: Granting special rights for the vaccinated, while tightening restrictions on the unvaccinated, risks widening already-dangerous social gaps.
  • Ethical concerns: These passports can create an onslaught of ethical issues for both those who receive the vaccine and those who do not.

What ethical issues could be raised?

  • Discrimination for minority communities: It could leave to discrimination for minority communities that are more skeptical about getting the vaccine. Younger adults and children are low priority for vaccines and could receive repercussions for not getting the vaccine.
  • Violation of privacy: Allowing businesses to access people's health information is a potential violation of privacy.
  • False sense of safety: It can create a false sense of safety that those vaccinated are no longer at risk for getting or spreading the infection. It's still unclear whether vaccinated people can contract an asymptomatic case of COVID-19 and spread the virus.
  • Further complicating the process: Mutations of the virus could complicate passports, as multiple vaccines may be introduced.

Conclusion

Immunity passports promise a way to go back to a more normal social and economic life. But the strategy raises the prospect of further dividing the world along the lines of wealth and vaccine access, experts warn, creating ethical and logistical issues that have alarmed decision-makers around the world.

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