Vanessa Chiasson is an Ottawa-based travel writer.
I learned a big lesson about COVID-era travel thanks to a recent visit to a tiny French town. A bistro maître d’, accustomed to France’s proof-of-vaccine app, eyed my foreign credentials, a tiny PDF from the Ontario government confirming my two doses, with suspicion. His eyeglasses came out as he studied my phone and finally, with an uneasy shoulder shrug, he waved me inside. The message was clear. He could read my bilingual certificate but could he trust it? It was a scene that would play out multiple times throughout my trip. I was the bottleneck in every airport, restaurant and museum lineup.
Canada’s newly unveiled national proof of vaccination program is supposed to improve that. Many media outlets heralded the move as “Canada’s international vaccine passport.” But nothing could be further from the truth. Canada’s program is a domestic effort to co-ordinate the provinces with a federal standard. It’s certainly not an international passport because one doesn’t exist ‒ yet. That could soon change. The need for a truly international solution, modelled along the same lines as the International Driving Permit or the yellow fever vaccination program, is growing. And Canada is uniquely positioned to make it happen.
Creating a globally recognized vaccination passport sounds like a monumental task but the international community has taken on tall orders such as this before. For instance, more than 100 countries are party to the United Nation’s 1949 Convention on Road Traffic, which governs International Driving Permits or IDPs. It provides guidelines for a local authority (such as the Canadian Automobile Association) to inspect your driver’s license and issue a multilingual piece of photo identification to support it overseas. As a result, foreign car rental agencies, police officers and local authorities are equipped with multilingual documents and a standardized format they can readily identify and trust.
The International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis is another example of a similarly global-minded effort to make travel documents more universal. People who have been vaccinated against yellow fever receive a yellow card on behalf of the Canadian government and the World Health Organization outlining the vaccine manufacturer and displaying the official stamp of Health Canada. Having personally carried my card around since 2004, I can attest to the fact that border agents around the world know exactly where to look to verify my yellow fever vaccine status.
Neither the IDP nor yellow fever card programs are without their flaws. Both are subject to forgeries and paperwork problems and are opportunities for corrupt officials to demand bribes. Both systems are about as low-tech as you can get. While not a disadvantage per se ‒ a surprisingly large number of border crossings are free of computers and even electricity ‒ there’s no denying that some modern upgrades are needed. But they’re a starting point, proof that even imperfect solutions bring universal benefits.
One Canadian professor is tackling the question of what a global vaccination passport might look like. University of Alberta political scientist Andy Knight is leading a team of international researchers to explore what might be required to design and implement an international system. He said in a recent interview with University of Alberta publication Folio, “We can’t treat this as a nationalistic issue – COVID-19 doesn’t recognize borders, and neither should the vaccine.”
Taking action on this issue is an important step in the global economic recovery. Right now, airline and travel-sector employees are caught in an impossible situation. If they brush off foreign vaccine certificates they’re unfamiliar with, they risk exposing their workplace and community to COVID-19. But if they stop to scrutinize the unfamiliar paperwork of every out-of-country traveller, it will slow down service and bring increased costs.
In her previous role as economic development minister, Mélanie Joly was working with her G20 counterparts to develop global standards for a vaccine certificate. She can continue this work in her new role as Minister of Foreign Affairs, alongside the new Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault, to expand upon the World Health Organization’s existing International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis program. Modernization efforts could include expanding the French and English format to include other widely used languages such as Mandarin, Arabic, and Spanish. The simple paper booklet could be further updated with security features, such as the metallic stripes and raised ink that protect Canadian banknotes. An app, perhaps such as the one I kept seeing in France, could give travellers and businesses the option of an efficient, scannable version of the passport.
Travel has long relied on international co-operation, treaties, and agreements on universal standards. It’s time to move forward with a true international vaccination passport.
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