I have a passport that identifies my citizenship and permits me to enter countries around the world. It has been sitting quietly in my drawer gathering cobwebs as I watch countries open and shut their borders according to the latest knee jerk quasi-public health prompt.
Passports and certificates are ambivalent instruments, equally providing permission to enter and serving as a barrier to entry. The only difference about proposed COVID passports is the stigma attached to this particular disease. There are other infectious diseases that have been, or are now are highly transmissible. But there is no Ebola, wild polio or influenza passport. Nor was an HIV passport ever proposed.
The plain fact is that the words “COVID” and “passport” should not be used together. COVID passports have nothing to do with public health. They are economic and social tools, designed to ease restrictions on infected then recovered, and vaccinated individuals, allowing some people to return to work and kick-start economic recovery. The corollary of course is that they exclude others.
The European Union is implementing vaccination certificates in a desperate effort to rekindle recovery in some of the worst hit Mediterranean states that are hungry for the summer tourist economic boost.
With increasing rates of vaccination and a global commitment by countries with vaccine surpluses to share their bounty, the global control of COVID seems closer than a year ago. An argument can be made that those people who are vaccinated and/or at low personal risk from COVID-19 (unlikely to suffer serious harms from infection), and/or who pose a low social risk (unlikely to spread the disease to others) might reasonably be permitted more freedom than current lockdown measures allow.
This argument, however, disregards that the inevitable resulting stratification into the immunoprivileged and the immunodeprived.
How that status would be determined is as unclear as the early edicts were about mask-wearing and social distancing. The fact is, even with vaccination, there is very little evidence about the duration of effect on severity and transmission, nor whether boosters would be effective in maintaining some form of protection.
Making dubious distinctions between artificial categories isn’t new, and doesn’t require a passport. Travellers to most countries in the world who are considered legitimate already fill out some form of declaration – usually customs. Travellers who are considered illegitimate, often called refugees, have always been deprived.
It remains to be seen how communities, already divided by attitudes towards vaccination, support these initiatives. Preliminary research shows that support is greater where certificates enable returns to high-risk jobs or attendance at large recreational events than for returning to work generally.
If there is little global appetite for uptake of COVID passports, they will take pride of place in our drawers, right next to our no longer required masks.