As more of the British population get vaccinated for COVID-19, the country is beginning to imagine a world that looks more like it did before the pandemic.
But this is a pandemic. So of course, nothing about that transition is going to be straightforward. And in the U.K., several companies are reportedly preparing to give their employees an uncompromising option: demonstrate proof of vaccination for the disease, or lose their jobs. Outraged labour organizations have dubbed the policy “jabs for jobs.”
Welcome to the global crisis’s next great flash point: vaccine passports.
A rancorous discussion around this idea has already begun here in Canada. As The Globe and Mail reported last week, Chief Science Adviser Mona Nemer is expected to release a report into vaccine passports in the coming weeks. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that while he could see their usefulness for international travel, they become more problematic if they’re introduced for domestic use.
That hasn’t stopped Israel from debuting a “Green Pass” that offers proof that the person holding it has received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. The pass, in turn, offers one freedoms unavailable to those not in possession of such a document. The European Union is also exploring a similar program.
On its surface, there would appear to be merit in a passport program of some description. They will almost assuredly become mandatory for the next few years when flying internationally, just as certain countries have required proof of vaccination for diseases such as yellow fever, smallpox and cholera.
There is also an argument for some sectors demanding their workers to be vaccinated for the safety of those with whom they are interacting. Health care workers, including personnel at long-term care homes, would be one such obvious industry; public transportation and education might also fall into this category. One could imagine many of the affected workers not being too upset about the edict either.
But once you begin envisioning a broader, world- and society-wide passport plan, you immediately confront problems.
For starters, the idea raises concerns around data privacy and the government’s use of your personal health information. Suddenly, you have cities, provinces and countries dividing themselves along health-status lines. One imagines a pregnant woman who didn’t get vaccinated on the advice of her doctor being denied access to restaurants, theatres, arenas, you name it.
And then consider: What about members of minority communities who may have declined a shot on religious grounds? There are laws in Canada that preclude discrimination based on religious beliefs, and there is an argument to be made that this would qualify.
There’s also the matter of responsibility. Are we going to make it the job of servers to demand to see these passports before a drink is served, or ask the staff at fitness centres to do the same before you’re allowed to work out? Governments have insisted that the vaccination program is voluntary, but extending cherished freedoms only to those who got the jab is a strange of way of demonstrating that.
On a more global scale, many poorer countries won’t see their people vaccinated on any notable scale for another year or two. A worldwide passport scheme will certainly discriminate against these jurisdictions and exacerbate the divide between rich and poor nations.
But my greatest reservation is whether such a program would even be ultimately useful.
Take Canada, for instance. Most people here will have the opportunity to get vaccinated by the end of September, barring any supply-chain snafus. But even before that point, economies will begin opening up because virus numbers are being steadily reduced.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, is talking about a post-pandemic world by this summer. Some restrictions are already being removed. Do we really want to invest the time and financial resources it would take to implement a vaccine-passport program when it could be completely redundant come September?
There is nothing to suggest that people are going to maintain physical distance once numbers nosedive. And if there are no public-health ramifications – for instance, seeing concerning spike in case counts – then people will act this way in greater and greater numbers.
Would there really be any point in asking to see someone’s vaccine passport at a restaurant, say, when they’ve just been sitting on the beach with dozens of other people? Or at a backyard barbecue with half the neighbourhood?
Far from accelerating the transition to a post-pandemic world, a mandatory vaccine-passport program would likely create unnecessary impediments to it. There may be some occasions when showing proof you’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19 is necessary – but it shouldn’t be a daily fact of our lives.
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