It’s Time to Embrace the Vaccine Passport

There Shouldn’t Be Any Controversy Around This Crucial Public Good

It’s Time to Embrace the Vaccine Passport | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Vaccine passports might be necessary in order to protect the public from COVID-19. Courtesy of the Province of British Columbia/flickr.

Vaccine passports, and the questions of whether governments or private businesses can or should require people to show them, have recently inspired controversy, and much misinformation, in many countries.

Some nations, like Israel, have introduced such passports. Other places, like New York State, are planning trials. Still others, including Florida and Texas, are gearing up to forbid them altogether.

It’s long been true that international passengers must prove yellow fever and other vaccinations when traveling abroad, and that children cannot be enrolled in school without having been vaccinated. But requiring proof of vaccination to board a plane, be seated at a restaurant, or attend a show—that would be new. The fur has—predictably—been flying.

Vaccine passports are a screen subject that masks the real issue: How much pressure are we as a society entitled to put on those who refuse to be vaccinated?

To end the pandemic, and to return to normal life, we need to know whether people are infected with COVID-19. That’s because people who are infected, whether they have symptoms or not, pose a danger to others. Vaccine passports help make this information more accessible.

We should think about vaccination credentials in terms of the information that they provide us—and it’s looking increasingly likely that demonstrating that you have been vaccinated conveys the same information as a negative COVID test. It tells you and others that you pose no threat, allowing society to open up without worrying about fanning pandemic flames.

This is the case whether the COVID vaccines provide sterilizing immunity—preventing transmission of the virus—or not. Not all vaccines are sterilizing. Rotavirus, inactivated polio, hepatitis B, and flu vaccines are not sterilizing. HPV, smallpox, measles, and oral polio vaccines are.

Vaccine passports are a screen subject that masks the real issue: How much pressure are we as a society entitled to put on those who refuse to be vaccinated?

We do not yet know for certain where COVID vaccines stand, though, so far, the emerging evidence suggests that they do prevent transmission, not just symptoms. Not until we have quite a few more months of experience with the vaccinated will we know for sure.

If we assume, for the moment, that COVID vaccines do produce sterilizing immunity, people who have been vaccinated clearly no longer threaten others. They contribute to herd immunity, slowing disease transmission to protect the medically compromised people who cannot be vaccinated, and ultimately, to bring the pandemic to an end.

Herd immunity through vaccination is a public good that we should encourage, and possibly even mandate. It was obviously unfair to require immunization or passports when not everyone had access to vaccines. But now that all adults in the U.S. can be freely vaccinated, it has become a matter of choice. Failure to get a jab has consequences for others.

If we agree that infected people should not endanger others by frequenting public venues where they can transmit disease, then it follows that we should be allowed to determine who is infected in the first place.

We can do that either by asking for vaccine status or by testing (a cumbersome undertaking, when you have to screen every person, entering every venue, every single day). Vaccine passports will be far more convenient.

Passports are a mild form of encouragement that gives the vaccinated certain benefits—and that spare individuals, and society, the burden of constant testing. Some view forbidding unvaccinated and unpassported people to fly, dine, attend events, and the like as unfair, an infringement of personal rights. But many others recognize such restrictions as an acceptable way of pressuring the unvaccinated to become vaccinated, for the benefit of the common good.

The requirements associated with vaccine passports are not novel. Many regulations and laws forbid citizens from posing threats to others, directly or indirectly, actively or passively. Zoning rules ban flammable materials in cellars, attics, or garages; require houses to be maintained and gardens tended; and make owners control pests and rodents, keep dogs leashed, and so forth.

Other regulations impinge on our bodies to improve our health: requiring the addition of fluoride in water, vitamins in milk, iodine in salt. Still other rules require certain behaviors to keep us safe: putting on seatbelts, wearing motorcycle helmets, using condoms during sex if we know we have a sexually transmitted disease.

Vaccine requirements abound, as well. We require vaccines for children enrolling in schools, for players of certain sports, and for entry into some nations. It’s hard to see why mandating COVID vaccinations to end the most devastating disaster since the Second World War is not taken equally seriously, and by more people. It seems reasonable that citizens be asked to participate in creating herd immunity as in other unpleasant but necessary tasks—defending the nation, or paying taxes. Not to mention that getting vaccinated and avoiding illness reduces the overall consumption of medical resources, benefitting everyone yet again.

Passport resisters might have a slightly stronger case for allowing people to keep their vaccination status private if science ultimately demonstrates that COVID vaccines are not sterilizing, protect only the vaccinated individual from becoming seriously ill, and do not block infection. This would recast vaccination as an individual, but not a public, good.

But even if it turns out that the vaccines merely deal with symptoms, infected vaccinated people still have lower viral loads than unvaccinated people and therefore should be less infectious and less dangerous to others. Knowing who had received their shot still will make a difference.

Passports, simply, should not be an issue. Yes, unvaccinated people without passports would have to endure the lines and possibly the cost of being frequently tested, while the vaccinated and passported would not. But that would be a choice they make to avoid vaccination. If people who refuse to be vaccinated can gain admission to events and venues by testing instead, the unfairness dissipates. Since they are not excluded, only inconvenienced, there is no inequity.

And the larger, crucial social good is achieved: We will know, either through testing or through proof of vaccination, whether someone has COVID-19.


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