Vaccine passports: The promise and pitfalls

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Millions of people are being vaccinated against the coronavirus every day. While that’s undoubtedly good news, this growing share of the population with COVID-19 immunity creates a conundrum for decision makers as they plan a gradual reopening of the country. On one hand, there are costs to asking vaccinated people to endure the isolation of lockdowns when they face little risk from the virus. On the other, lifting restrictions to accommodate them would put unvaccinated people in danger.

Several countries have begun exploring a possible solution to this problem: vaccine passports. A vaccine passport would provide official proof that someone has been vaccinated and grant them access to activities that are off-limits to others — whether it’s international travel, bars and restaurants, gyms or group gatherings.

In Israel, where nearly half the population is fully vaccinated, a digital “green pass” gives immune citizens the freedom to do a long list of things that had largely been forbidden since the start of the pandemic. Leaders in the United Kingdom and the European Union have announced plans to roll out their own versions of the green pass in the near future. There are no official plans for a vaccine passport in the U.S. just yet, but President Biden has ordered his administration to “assess the feasibility” of creating a digital vaccination tracking database.

Why there’s debate

Advocates for vaccine passports say the documents would allow a safe middle ground between strict lockdown rules and the widespread lifting of restrictions. A simple app, they argue, could allow businesses to open their doors to vaccinated customers, which will help speed the economic recovery and spare people with COVID-19 immunity the burden of isolation. Others make the case that granting vaccinated people special privileges could motivate people who might otherwise refuse it to get the shot.

Skeptics raise a number of concerns about vaccine passports. The most significant issue, they argue, is that the passports would make the inequities that have been highlighted throughout the pandemic even worse. Poor people and people of color have endured an outsize share of the suffering from the coronavirus and are also being vaccinated at a lower rate than wealthy white people. Rewarding those who have been vaccinated would invariably mean punishing others who have been denied access to vaccines by an unfair system, critics argue. Others say medically vulnerable people who can’t get the vaccine for health reasons would be left out entirely.

There are also fears that the passports would further politicize the vaccine rollout and make vaccine hesitancy even worse among people who generally distrust the government. Others raise practical concerns about how private a digital vaccination database could be and whether the U.S. could even put together the data needed to build one in the first place.

What’s next

The odds that the U.S. government might unveil a vaccine passport system anytime soon appear slim, but proof of vaccinations may soon become required by a number of private companies. Some airlines, cruise ship operators and events businesses have reportedly begun looking at making shots mandatory for all customers.

Perspectives

Supporters

Vaccine passports would create incentive for more people to get vaccinated

“The biggest advantage of vaccine passports is that they would encourage people to get the vaccine. Many people who are indifferent about getting it but want to be able to fly or attend a sporting event would have a strong inducement to hurry up and claim their doses. Getting vaccinated would also boost their health and job prospects, as well as protect others.” — Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg

Passports would provide a safe way for the economy to reopen

“A growing number of states seems to be opening up businesses somewhat indiscriminately while other states are lifting mask mandates — even in states where levels of coronavirus transmission are hardly abating. ... It would seem that it would be helpful to have some uniform method of identifying the vaccinated and allowing various venues to screen for admission.” — David A. Andelman, CNN

Passports would help relieve the mental health burden of lockdowns for millions

“In addition to the economic boost, the benefit to overall mental health of these ‘islands’ of sanctioned ‘new normalcy’ would be incalculable.” — Dr. Jeffrey W. Moses, The Hill

People who face little risk shouldn’t have to continue putting their lives on hold

“Those who are now immune should be able to slowly and carefully start living their lives again. Go to public venues and gyms. Eat out. Shop and rebuild communities. It is important to maintain good ventilation and wear masks for extra safety until community prevalence drops and we reach herd immunity, but this is a good time for immune people to be active.” — Dorry Segev and Marty Makary, Washington Post

Without government guidance, private companies will create an ad hoc passport system

“This will be difficult, and that’s why it’s imperative that we figure this all out now, as a society, and not leave it to the whims and demands of private businesses and citizens.” — Andrew Bailey, Conversation

The benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks

“If vaccines help protect people from getting sick and ease lockdown measures, I will happily flash a piece of paper confirming I have had my vaccine. I do not feel violated in any way, I don’t feel coerced and I do not feel it is a breach of my confidential medical records.” — Dr. Amir Khan, Al Jazeera

Skeptics

A functional vaccine passport system may not be logistically possible in the U.S.

“While some experts say there’s a chance the U.S. government could pull off a successful and legal certification scheme, data privacy and anti-discrimination hurdles, as well as technical ones, could make a federal vaccine passport system tough to impose on Americans.” — Alexis Keenan, Yahoo Finance

Vaccine passports would make inequality worse

“Throughout the pandemic, pervasive inequalities have been exposed and exploited by the virus. The proposition of vaccine passports will only exacerbate these inequalities further.” — Jay Patel, HuffPost

Vulnerable groups would be left behind by vaccine passports

“Such restrictive passports could mean being locked out of your job, education, or even the ability to shop for food. At a moment when vaccine distribution is highlighting inequalities both locally and internationally, when communities of color and lower-income communities are being systematically underserved, vaccine passports would amplify our medical segregation.” — Albert Fox Cahn, Wired

Punishing people for distrusting the health care system will only make the problem worse

“Trust by minority populations in healthcare and health institutions is very low right now. Conditioning their reengagement into society based on whether or not they take a vaccine when they already have such high levels of public distrust is deeply problematic. I think it further erodes trust. It could set back vaccine policy, healthcare, and trust in health and science even more than it already has.” — Law and ethics scholar Nita Farahany to MIT Technology Review

A digital vaccine registry raises major privacy concerns

“Vaccination passports would also make private health information public. If there’s one thing Americans are protective of in the internet age, it’s personal information. And if there’s one place Americans don’t want that information, it’s in a government registry.” — Editorial, Dallas Morning News

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images