SCENES of Pakistani labourers demonstrating outside a government office in Multan demanding to be inoculated with AstraZeneca, one of the approved vaccines for travel purposes to Saudi Arabia, shows how proposed travel-specific vaccine passports can furnish entry tickets to the West and other rich countries. Such a move can have a disproportionate impact on travellers from the Global South where, alongside poor rates of vaccination, largely non-Western vaccines (Chinese and Russian), seen as travel-unworthy, are being administered.
This spotlights the serious issue surrounding the use and abuse of vaccine passports to bar people from travelling to the West for the simple reason that they have not been vaccinated with Western vaccines considered travel-worthy and currently not available in the Global South. Yet vaccine passports for travel purposes are one thing; vaccine-immunity passport for accessing reopened social and commercial space in the Western hemisphere another. Both, though often bearing the same name, have been assigned different purposes locally and internationally.
Ever since Covid-19 struck, discussion has been underway on how to ensure that public, social and business spaces are kept free of infected individuals. The idea mooted since early this year has been that of immunity certificates — sometimes called vaccine passport — containing details of a Covid-free, Covid-negative test or recent vaccination. This immunity certificate allows you to enter restaurants and other spaces.
Covid-immunity certificates can take the shape of either a digital app or paper-based document issued by the relevant department. New York has been trying out a version of the immunity certificate called Excelsior Pass, which lets vaccinated people attend music concerts and other social events. The UK first floated the idea of immunity passport as a means of getting entry into public spaces in a rushed bid to restart the economy. However, the proposal has been shot down by MPs for its civil liberties implications.
Other use of vaccine passport is for travel purposes. The final shape of the vaccine passport is far from settled. However, there is speculation that it is likely to contain a combination of vaccination status and negative Covid test status. While these details are being hashed out, vaccine passports are already being rolled out by different countries as trial balloons. Further, concerns centring on vaccine passports’ disproportionate effects are being debated, too. Covid-19 has put an end to foreign travel as we know it. In recent months, restricted travel has been allowed but mostly for returning citizens or residents trapped abroad. Another wave further tightened entry requirements with many countries such as Pakistan finding itself on a red list introduced by the UK. Being on the red list means that returning citizens and residents are required to spend time in self-financed and considerably policed hotel quarantine.
Pakistan raised a hue and cry over India’s exclusion from the red list while Kenya accused the UK government of displaying discrimination in parachuting Kenya onto the list. From the public health viewpoint, though, the vaccine passport represents a raft of additional measures to insulate local populations from the ingress of the mutated virus such as the Indian variant found to be more lethal and transmissible than the original virus.
The EU is also opening up to foreign tourists provided they present the vaccine passport. It has rolled out its own green digital passport to facilitate freedom of movement within the EU. Britain’s NHS has also launched a digital application meant to serve as a vaccine passport. However, objections are being aired, too. They cover a spectrum of personal data and privacy concerns, the potential of vaccine passport to accentuate existing vaccine and health inequalities and its perceived use to restrict travel, access to knowledge and movement of people from the South to the West.
Unless vaccine equality is established and all WHO-approved vaccines find favour with the West, the introduction and roll-out of travel-specific vaccine passports will continue to sow doubts about the intentions of Western countries, further reinforced by vaccine hoarding and vaccine nationalism. That is why the roll-out of the vaccine passport, a sensible idea in the given circumstances, must be harmonised with the perspective of the Global South under the aegis of WHO to ensure that safe and equitable travel remains the overarching aim. Handled insensitively with the already existing vaccine inequality between the jab-have and the jab-have nots, the vaccine passport can have a serious a political and reputational fallout for Western countries advocating it.
The writer, a public health consultant, is the author of Patient Pakistan: Reforming and Fixing Healthcare for All in the 21st Century.
Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2021