Much has been made about “vaccine passports.” Partisan lines are being drawn. Montana recently became the fifth state (joining Florida, Texas, Utah, and Idaho) to ban vaccine passports, while New York has taken the opposite stance and has launched its COVID-19 Excelsior Pass. One must now show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to attend many venues in the Empire State.
Proof of vaccination is nothing new. Sovereign nations often require proof of vaccination as a prerequisite to entry. Public schools require students be vaccinated against many infectious diseases. There is a strong public health rationale behind universal vaccinations. The vast increase in American life expectancy during the 20th century is a testament to the efficacy of vaccines.
But the problem behind a vaccine passport is multifold. The best of intentions all too often produce a flawed system which fails to provide the safety it promises and creates unintended consequences.
A vaccine passport assumes everyone has an android phone, but estimates are 20 percent of American adults do not own one. A vaccine passport based on this flawed assumption excludes a large minority of the population from participating in everyday life.
A vaccine passport works only if it belongs to its rightful owner. That can only be verified with a photo ID. There is no law that mandates a person must carry a valid photo ID when going about their daily business. Any attempt by a public-facing business to require photo ID as a condition of entry is ripe for litigation.
Our haphazard state-by-state approach to the pandemic is guaranteed to continue. This may have financial repercussions for states following the New York model. Imagine a major concert performer where the contract guarantees the performer 25 percent of all ticket revenues on the tour. Where will you maximize revenue? States without vaccine passports, or New York? The only way for the New York concert venue to compete in such an environment is to increase its ticket prices. New Yorkers will cross state lines to attend the next performance for a fraction of the cost. New York thus loses out on the revenue – and the concomitant sales tax.
People have become accustomed to draconian security at airports but imagine the logistical nightmare of installing COVID-19 security in every grocery store, restaurant, and retailer. Many stopped flying post-9/11 – not out of fear from terrorism, but from disgust at so many security procedures.
Lastly, why stop at COVID-19? Why not include a mandatory influenza vaccine to the passport? Childhood MMR boosters? Why not all your biometric data?
The Chinese have already developed a system in several major cities where citizens must use a COVID-19 app to go about their daily business. If green-lighted (i.e. vaccinated, no recent exposures) it grants them access to public transport, shopping malls, apartment blocks, etc. If red-lighted it prohibits their access and alerts the Public Security Bureau.. Surveillance of that extent should send shudders down the spine of anyone who cherishes their basic right to medical privacy and freedom of movement. The choices we make now will go a long way to determine whether our system or the Chinese model becomes the global standard.
Middle ground is a wonderful thing. Those at highest risk for serious COVID-19 infection remain the elderly and the immunocompromised. A vaccine passport is a logical step for admittance to selective venues – hospitals, nursing homes, and long-term palliative care facilities – to protect those most at risk. Protection of those individuals should not, however, come at the expense of the individual right to choose whether to be vaccinated, nor should the right to free movement and participation in basic daily life be contingent upon constant electronic and digital surveillance.
Ryan Kelly is a faculty member at Bluegrass Community & Technical College. The opinions expressed in this article are strictly his own.