Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis set up the nation’s first vaccine passport face-off early this month when he put out an executive order that bans state and local government from issuing proof-of-vaccination documents, and prohibits governments, businesses and public venues from demanding proof of Covid-19 vaccination from individuals. The DeSantis order, which went into effect April 2, put his administration on a collision course with both a South Beach festival and the NBA’s Miami Heat, both of which intend to inspect Covid-19 vaccination records at their events.
DeSantis knows a good wedge issue when he sees it, and his order helped accelerate the latest national political argument about Covid-19. Some observers see the “passport” argument as a new way for conservatives to express skepticism about the whole pandemic response—a skepticism that has horrified liberals who think someone like DeSantis isn’t taking the pandemic as seriously as their heroes in the public-health world.
But liberals might want to pause their reflexive opposition to the governor’s latest move to consider whether his anti-passport stand, fully considered, makes a point worth endorsing.
There’s no such thing as a national vaccine passport right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s a figment of DeSantis’ imagination. Private companies are pushing to develop some kind of high-tech credentials to prove an individual has taken the Covid-19 vaccine, and the Biden administration has been holding meetings about how much to help coordinate that effort. Although press secretary Jen Psaki has resolutely denied the federal government will erect one, the Washington Post reported that the Federal Health IT Coordinating Council met in early March to discuss, as the federal slide deck put it, “a unified policy” for such a passport system. “The federal government will inevitably be involved with vaccine credential solutions, even if just transactionally,” the slide deck stated.
Other nations, including Israel, China, the European Union, have already gone the vaccine passport route, as well as private organizations like the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the identity security firm Clear. Even if Washington isn’t going to literally issue vaccine passports, its involvement in the initiative could potentially turn the system into a de facto new form of national ID—a card, or more likely app, that people end up carrying 24/7. It’s easy to imagine any new, federally standardized passport expanding beyond its initial use, especially in a country with no universal form of federal ID. Consider how the driver’s license, ostensibly designed to regulate traffic safety, has become the equivalent of an internal passport in the United States, required to enter some buildings, receive health care, cash a check, board an airplane and sometimes even to apply for a job.
So before the government assists the private sector in building a new credential that helps regulate where we can go and what we can do, a few questions need to be asked. Would a federally standardized vaccine passport system unnecessarily infringe on civil liberties? Would it actually improve public health, or would it merely impose a new form of social control? Would there be any limit on how much other information it ended up carrying—and even if yes, would it establish a precedent for additional public-private credentials connected to a person’s identity? An effective vax passport system would be expensive and time-consuming to build out for the government and private companies; might those resources be better applied to some other facet of the Covid-19 fight?
Whether conjured into being by the government or private parties, a vaccine passport system would be a monumental task. Based on the current cutoff age for the vaccines, somewhere around 300 million Americans might apply for passports if they were adopted widely enough to affect day-to-day life. There is currently no national immunization registry, and state immunization registries are inconsistent, to say the least. An accurate system would need to span dozens of vaccination databases and untold numbers of pharmacies and health systems, according to the Washington Post.
Mindful of previous database hacks, privacy advocates fret about creating an inviting target where so much health information is either stored or from which it can be accessed. And a phone does not (yet) automatically work as conclusive proof of identity. Joe, who is not vaccinated, could borrow Bob’s smartphone to clear the turnstile at the basketball arena turnstile, making a mockery of the system—or creating new TSA-style multiple-ID lines anywhere a crowd wanted to gather.
Those are just the technical obstacles. You don’t have to be a howling paranoid like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who calls vax passports “Biden’s Mark of the Beast,” to appreciate the civil liberties issues posed by such a credential.
Some ethicists were raising the alarm as much as a year ago, before the vaccines even existed. Health passports “would create a formal, state-sanctioned opportunity for law enforcement to stop and question innocent individuals,” academicians Françoise Baylis and Natalie Kofler wrote. They warned of “a novel kind of biological divide between the haves and have-nots.”
What sort of rules would govern the use of passports, or circumscribe their effects on our lives? Would employers be allowed to demand to inspect someone’s vaccine status? Your local Walmart? Your local bar? Would life become a series of vaccine checkpoints? Are we really prepared to exclude people who can’t take vaccines for health, religious or personal reasons—but are willing to wear masks—from living normally?
The vaccine passport would open up other divisions. Designers envision vaccine records to be retrievable securely via smartphones and presented through a QR code. But not everybody owns a smartphone, so any tech-based passport would worsen the divide between digital haves and have-nots. The split would also be geographical: If some states refused to share their information—as the DeSantis order instructs Florida to do—and the courts upheld the ban, their residents would have little access to the passport system.
Some who can be convinced of the unfairness and unworkability of vax passports support the concept as a route to a larger public-health good—a way to “nudge” the vaccine-hesitant into taking the jab. If you make life miserable for people who haven’t gotten vaccinated, the thinking goes, they will relent and bare their arms to the nurses. Do we really want to go there? Do we really want to make compulsory that which is currently voluntary? The states can mandate vaccinations, but the primary penalties for refusing state-mandated vaccines have been fines or taxes—not access to daily activities. If the state governments really want to require Covid-19 vaccinations, they should pass laws, and face the inevitable challenges.
Right now, America is an invisible mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, an unsettling situation for which a passport seems like a tempting solution. But when the day comes—fairly soon—that everybody has been offered the vaccine, and most people who want it have received it, then what will the passport really be telling us?
It will essentially filter out two groups: Americans who can’t take the vaccine for medical reasons (such as the allergic and the immunosuppressed), and those with religious or philosophical objections to getting the shot. A passport system used by nightclubs, churches, arenas, popular bars and other places where masses congregate would end up excluding the immunocompromised, but these individuals already avoid crowed gatherings for reasons of self-protection. It would also exclude those principled vaccine refusers, who invoke religion or politics in their opposition. (And yes, this is likely to have a partisan lean: A March survey from Pew Research found that Democrats are 27 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say they will get vaccinated or that they already have.) A passport system would reduce the overall Covid-19 risk a tiny bit, but as the population becomes more vaccinated, how much harm are you really preventing by keeping those people out of the societal mix?
The Washington Post editorialized this week in favor of the federal government creating standards for vaccine passports, stating that the new credential shouldn’t be thought of as “tool of oppression rather than an opportunity for reopening.” But even the Post concedes the difficulty in creating a secure passport that protects privacy.
Like random pat-downs on subway systems, metal detectors at Major League Baseball games, and most of what TSA does at the airport, the vaccine passport idea is an idea with obvious public appeal that gets a lot foggier when you start to weigh the potential benefits against the very clear costs. Until data becomes available from the countries that have adopted these passports, we’re not out of bounds to doubt them as public-health theater, an exercise to make us feel safe in a dangerous world. Vaccine passports also add extra political divisiveness in a time when we could all use a breather. According to pollster Frank Luntz, the formality of a vax passport incites Republicans, in particular, who view it as a get-vaccinated-or-else threat from the feds and as an example of political overreach.
Safety doesn’t come in a vax passport, it comes in a vaccine. That’s the point the public health industrial complex should be pushing, especially to the vaccine-hesitant, who must accept that they are knowingly taking a risk with their lives by avoiding the medicine.
Rather than rushing headlong into a standardized national system, the best policy may well be something more akin to DeSantis’ executive order, slowing the adoption of either private or public vax passports by discouraging the ground-level market for their use. The Biden administration, which has done so well in assisting with vaccine distribution, would be wise to reduce his own slow-walk to a crawl, and suspend any federal or private-public plans to develop vaccine passports. His primary goal should be to help a vaccinated America rejoin the world. That accomplished, we should continue what we’ve been doing so well for the past three months: Vaccinating every willing arm.
Every willing arm in the world! Hey, I’m a Pfizer man, but I wouldn’t have said no to the other vaxxes. Send vax notes to [email protected]. My email alerts are post-Moderna. My Twitter feed hates needles. My RSS feed is a petri dish of contagion.
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