Economists are skeptical of a return to normalcy in 2021. Among their fears is the continued havoc wreaked by COVID-19 infections and changes within the economy that are leaving certain “sectors permanently weaker.” The now infamous Dr. Fauci said on CNBC, “so if we can get the overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated by let’s say the end of the second, the beginning of the third quarter — by the time we get into mid-fall of 2021, we can be approaching some level of normality.” Dr. Fauci, as a long-time advisor to Presidents, ought to realize that even if sufficient doses of the vaccines are available to the public that many Americans are skeptical of vaccines, especially vaccines that are rammed through a shortened efficacy process. Even with this backdrop in mind, some major American companies and technology groups “have begun developing smartphone apps or systems for individuals to upload details of their COVID-19 tests and vaccinations, creating digital credentials that could be shown in order to enter concert venues, stadiums…, or even countries.”
For now, the concept of a vaccine passport is only an idea in the abstract. According to CNN Business, the Common Trust Network, an initiative in part led by the World Economic Forum, has partnered with major airlines. Their app, the CommonPass app, allows users to upload “medical data such as a COVID-19 test result or, eventually, a proof of vaccination by a hospital or medical professional, generating a health certificate or pass in the form of a QR code.” The intention is to create a tool that allows companies and governments to withhold access to their services or even entry if an individual doesn’t meet the criteria. Even those who receive COVID-19 vaccines should “expect to continue wearing masks and social distancing on their journeys over the next year,” says Dr. Martin Krsak, an infection disease specialist.
Ironically Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, no bastion of liberal values, have embraced similar policies. At the G20 leaders’ summit, Xi said that nations need to “harmonize policies” and that “China has proposed a global mechanism on the mutual recognition of health certificates based on nucleic acid test results in the form of Internationally accepted QR codes.” According to the Daily Caller, the Chinese software color codes individuals based on whether they should be isolated or “allowed out in public spaces.” The Chinese model is merely a more expansive version of the CommonPass app, but even China’s model has its own problems.
China has implemented a highly digitized but invasive surveillance apparatus whereby, according to The Wall Street Journal, “authorities were able to track-down to the minute-the sick person’s exact journey through the city’s subway system.” Officials then shared that information online and “warned residents to get themselves checked if they had been in the vicinity at the time.” While such a privacy-invading tool might never come to fruition in the United States, there is always a constant concern of surveillance. Even in less privacy-conscious China, residents pushed back against an effort to “create a permanent version of a smartphone-based health-rating system developed to fight Covid-19.” Even in democratic countries like Spain public health officials are creating a registry of individuals who decline a vaccine and plan on sharing it “with other European partners.” With the possibility of the widely-touted vaccines being unable to stop transmission of Covid-19, it is likely that these digital tools might never go away.
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Digital vaccine certifications also pose other social issues. According to The New York Times, “the digital passes also raise the specter of a society split into health pass haves and have-notes, particularly if venues begin requiring the apps as entry tickets.” Civil liberties experts further warn that this approach could create a smaller version of the Chinese social credit system with the difference being that “private actors like employers and restaurants would determine who can and cannot access services.” Furthermore, this approach neglects the reality that many Americans have limited access to medical care and “online verification tools.”
These digital tools are part of the public health tool kit. In theory, these tools should allow public health professionals to track infected individuals or those exposed to the virus. Back in early 2020, there were concerns that Apple and Google were developing similar but Americanized surveillance tools for use in the United States. Though fears were overblown in the United States, Washington, D.C. and states such as Maryland, Virginia, and Nevada planned to use the new capabilities, according to The New York Times.
Vaccines and the End of the Declared Pandemic
The Trump Administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” helped boost private sector efforts to develop a safe and effective vaccine. Currently, there are two Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved vaccines: Pfizer and Moderna. However, as it turns out, neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine “is aimed at preventing you from getting an infection.” According to Dr. Chris Beyrer, an Infectious Disease expert, “these COVID vaccines are preventing clinical disease, we don’t know if they prevent transmission.” Given the media coverage of vaccination passports, one would expect the vaccine to be effective in preventing transmission. However, there is no such evidence yet. According to Dr. William Moss, a vaccines expert at Johns Hopkins University, “what’s being measured in the trials is whether or not they prevent disease, mild, moderate and severe disease.” Walter Orenstein, the former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s immunization program, said, “I would be surprised to see an actual eradication of this virus now that it’s all over the world.”
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While these vaccines will help the economy rebound and ease anxiety about the Novel Coronavirus, it is important to note that the virus will remain after the Pandemic is declared over. If transmission is still possible then what is the purpose of the passport? In sum, a vaccine can only do so much, so efforts to develop vaccination passports could be misguided. There are some countries that require travelers to get certain vaccines depending upon the traveler’s country of origin like Uganda or Brazil; however, there is much uncertainty about the current COVID-19 vaccines. While domestic use of vaccination passports might appeal to authoritarian countries like China, this should not be seriously entertained inside the United States. Humans have always been resilient to challenges and this new public health crisis is no different. We can move beyond this current Pandemic and build a better future.