Digital Vaccine ‘Passports’ Could Reopen Public Life, But Not For Everyone

We risk creating an unvaccinated underclass

  • The European Union proposes a Digital Green Certificate to prove vaccination status.
  • Vaccination passports can make travel and indoor activities possible. 
  • The EU passport will be free, and come in digital and paper forms.
Digital vaccine passport

Unsplash / Lukas

The EU’s digital vaccine passports might be the key to opening up the world again. 

Germany is getting set to implement its own EU-compatible COVID passports. Technically, these are not passports—they’re vaccine certificates. Crucially, the digital version will be used by all EU countries, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. This will make it easier for vaccinated people to travel inside the bloc, but it also standardizes proof of vaccine, which is required for many activities across the zone. 

“Vaccination requirements are not a new concept, particularly in travel. Many countries have required certain vaccinations before entering their country for the health and safety of both citizens and travelers,” medical specialist Michael Fischer told Lifewire via email. “Digital can be good for those who do not want to lose their physical vaccination papers, but having a combination of both would be a good way to ensure that everyone can show their proof, even if servers are down.”

Passports To Open Public Life

Long-wished-for vacations are one use of a vaccine certificate. Many countries waive mandatory testing or quarantine for vaccinated travelers. But a certificate of vaccination is equally important at home.

In Germany, for example, lockdown has eased in the past week, but with precautions. People can sit outside at bars and restaurants, and visit non-essential stores, but only with a negative COVID-19 test or proof of full vaccination. Last week, a couple in the south of Germany was arrested for selling fake certificates.

Member states have to develop their own apps, or adopt one already in use, but the EU’s official line is that the certificates must be respected.

Vaccine certificate

Unsplash / Markus Winkler

“Member States shall refrain from imposing additional travel restrictions on the holders of an EU Digital COVID Certificate, unless they are necessary and proportionate to safeguard public health,” says the EU statement.

In terms of the US, this would be like having a federal certificate, but individual states would be responsible for creating and administering them.

It also would be advantageous to make the US and European certificates compatible.

A vaccination passport app would be simple to use. It would show a QR code to be scanned by whoever needs to know your vaccine status. Similar apps are already in use. For example, TravelPass, powered by the Trybe.ID platform, provides proof of PCR tests for travelers out of Singapore by partnering with a PCR tester in the country.

Digital Divide And The Unvaccinated Underclass

The EU’s COVID passport will be available free, to all citizens, on paper or in digital form. A digital-only system or a paid certificate would exclude people without the means to pay, or without a smartphone. But even with a free, universal scheme, we risk exclusion.

"Vaccine passports’ [may] encourage high-risk behavior by people who have unrealistic expectations of vaccination."

“In my opinion, there is another major social issue concerning digital vaccine passports,” physician Dr. Waqas Ahmad told Lifewire via email. “Those who are non-vaccinated will definitely suffer because of a lack of access to basic facilities. This will create a social gap between vaccinated and [unvaccinated] people, which in the long run will create unrest in society.”

“This will most definitely create an unvaccinated underclass, many of whom are unable to get the vaccine due to allergies or immune system disorders,” nutrition supplement blogger John Frigo told Lifewire via email.

Risky Business

Another possibility is that certificates might actually increase risk. 

“Vaccine passports [may] encourage high-risk behavior by people who have unrealistic expectations of vaccination,” says Dr. Ahmad. “The entitled types will demand access and expose others to risk, as do the ‘no mask’ groups now.”

This, however, is more a function of basic human selfishness than a problem inherent to passports and certificates. Re-opening public life in a safe and responsible manner is key to turning COVID from pandemic to endemic. Vaccination certificates, in both digital and paper forms, are an efficient and easy-to-understand mechanism. They might not be perfect, but if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that pragmatism is often the best choice.

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