Vaccine Passports: what you need to know.

We ask people to prove they’re vaccinated all the time. What’s concerning is the “digital” part.

We’ve reached the most confusing moment of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Pandemic with a capital P isn’t over, as Michigan is proving right now, the experience of the pandemic is bifurcating. For most of the pandemic, all of us experienced it the same way—certain activities were safer than others...for everyone (even those who chose to ignore science). 

But now that’s changed. For those who remain unvaccinated, the risk of infection limits the span of activities that can be done safely. Those who have been vaccinated are beginning to emerge from pandemic hibernation to get back to the things we’ve all missed, like indoor dining and air travel. 

For the institutions providing these goods—like restaurants, airlines, even popular travel destinations—the question is how to manage the risks. There are basically three answers to that question:

  1. Open participation to everyone while engaging in mitigation to limit the risk.

  2. Pretend like the pandemic is over (probably because you’ve pretended like it didn’t exist all along).

  3. Limit participation to those who’ve been vaccinated and are, for the most part, immune.

This is the context in which we’re having a debate about “vaccine passports” right now. There’s not one definition of a “vaccine passport,” but broadly they encompass some form of document, digital or paper, that proves your vaccination status. It’s hard to understand a tool outside of the goal for which it is used—and these tools would enable institutions to choose answer number three above, limiting participation to those who’ve been vaccinated. 

Supporters say that vaccine passports are critical to safely resuming life as we knew it. Opponents say that they’re an infringement on civil liberties, that they’re discriminatory, and that they present broad sweeping new powers for the government. Let’s cut in.

Vaccine requirements are nothing new. But this is a new platforming opportunity for anti-vaxxers.

Vaccine requirements are nothing new. We require people to prove vaccination status to go to school. Countries require people to prove that they’ve been vaccinated against certain infections to enter—we even require new immigrants to prove they’ve been vaccinated to enter our country. 

So what is new? Anti-vaxxers have been griping for some time about vaccine requirements for all of these things. To be clear, when I say “anti-vaxxers,” I’m not talking about folks who are hesitant about the vaccines—I’m talking about the very online community of disinformers who are dedicated to ending one of the most effective public health tools that exists. For the past several years they’ve grown in prominence, largely as a function of social media and its propensity to move disinformation (my first episode of America Dissected way back in 2019 was about this). 

What’s new about this moment is that COVID-19 has forced vaccines back into the public consciousness in a major way—and it’s given anti-vaxxers a platform they never could have dreamed of. Couple this newfound platform with Donald Trump’s (who flirted with anti-vaxxers during his first run for president) politicization of science throughout the pandemic, and you have a recipe for a major adoption of anti-vax dogma by the GOP base. The irony, of course, is that Trump himself was instrumental in “Operation Warp Speed” that delivered the COVID-19 vaccines in record time. Since, he’s retreated back to the ideology of his own forging, refusing to take his vaccine in public (though he and Melania did take theirs on the way out of the White House). 

The argument that asking people to prove their vaccination status on public health grounds is anything more than sensible public health policy is unfounded. Again, we do it all the time anyway to ensure vaccination against diseases that are far less common than COVID-19. Shouldn’t we do it in the midst of a global pandemic? We cannot allow this moment and the platform it’s provided anti-vaxxers to take us back to a time when preventable diseases ran amok. 

And no, this isn’t “discrimination.” While vaccine passports are intended specifically to exclude people who haven’t been vaccinated from certain activities, there is nothing inalterable or fundamental about not being vaccinated—anti-vaxxers are not a protected identity class. To be sure, that changes for people for whom there are credible arguments that vaccination could be harmful because of pre-existing health conditions or is inconsistent with verifiable religious beliefs. But that’s simply not the case for the vast majority of people who currently oppose vaccinations.

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What the opposition is actually about.

“The government is not now, nor will we be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday. “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”

That should offer comfort to people who characterized the vaccine passport as a gateway to a vast government surveillance and control network, right? But it hasn’t. 

Because it was never really about the government. It was always about culture. The core elements of the anti-vaxxer movement are melding with Trumpist ideology to create a potent force in this moment. What unites them is a willful ignorance to facts and a disregard for the consequences one’s choices have for others. They both frame science as a threat to their liberties, rather than what they do with that “liberty” as a threat to the liberties of others.

They have honed in on the idea of vaccine passports because they offer a potent tool to force them to bear both reality and the burden of their own choices. Without them, institutions have to either comport with their world view—that the pandemic doesn’t exist—or do all they can to protect others from their choices. 

It’s the “digital” part you should be wary of.

While I am not opposed to the concept of a vaccine passport—they have their risks. And it's the “digital” part I’m wary of. “But Abdul,” I hear you asking, “we give so much of our data to the tech companies all the time.” As I unlock my always-online iPhone with my face—gaining access to my credit cards, my day-to-day calendar, and pictures of me and everyone I love—I have to agree. 

But this is different for a few reasons. My iPhone has a terrible habit of serving me ads for things I actually want to buy. Why? Because that’s the whole point (Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalismis a must-read on this). So much of our “free” apps and programs offered to us by tech giants like Google and Facebook are free because we’re not the customer—we’re the product. Our data is mined constantly to tweak algorithms that try to figure out what we might like and “serve” it to us. Do I want my vaccination status—or frankly any health information—to be a part of that tweaking and selling process? No. So unless you’re paying for it, someone else is being paid for you. 

So if I don’t trust Big Tech, surely there are a number of smart agile startups in Silicon Valley ready to solve this problem. After all, these vaccine passports present the need for a new product that people could use right away. But that’s exactly the problem: products built on the fly—whether cars or houses or apps—are less secure and tend to glitch. So while I worry about the major tech companies trying to own and sell my data to advertisers, I worry about the smaller start-ups having the resources and experience to keep my data safe and to work properly.

Ultimately, while I agree that vaccine passports are a plausible approach to keeping people healthy as we emerge from this pandemic—it’s key that they’re pursued in a way that safeguards data from being sold, hacked, or misused. 

The ACLU has argued that in order to do that, paper passports should always be accepted, and that development should be open-source and untrackable—allowing systems to be interoperable and users to pull their data should they want to. 

That’s a great start. But here’s another idea: what if everyone just got vaccinated? That would be a great ending.