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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

On the Ethics and Politics of Vaccine Passports

Next Monday (September 13) people in BC will need proof of vaccination if they want to access some events, services and businesses. The government has decided that the best way to prove you have been vaccinated against COVID-19 is by registering for the BC Vaccine Card in either digital or print form. Apparently the two cards you received after being vaccinated are not enough to prove you have been vaccinated—at least for the government.

For many this extra measure is a great idea. For others it opens up some rather important ethical issues. I am probably not alone in worrying about government overreach, even though I fully support vaccination and mask-wearing. I don’t really like the idea of government tracking and surveilling me any more than I like it when corporations or social media does this. From a practical perspective I also don’t think vaccine passports will make BC any safer. To be sure, I get the argument that individual privacy concerns are not absolute, and in some cases should be set aside for the sake of public good. So even post-vaccination I am good with masks in closed public places, and reasonable social distancing measures.

It certainly bothers me when I hear that more than a few people have refused to be vaccinated, but I also know in a free and democratic country they do in fact have a right to refuse. We do not believe forcing people to put something into their body that they do not want is a good thing for obvious reasons. Vaccine hesitancy even in the face of overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe and effective will always be with us and at this point vaccinations against COVID-19 are voluntary not mandatory. However, it seems that in lieu of mandatory vaccinations the government of BC has opted for Vaccine Passports. You have a right to refuse to be vaccinated but if you opt out your freedom of movement will be restricted. Restricting a citizen's freedom of movement because they do not carry a vaccine passport may be looked upon as a form of discrimination, and that is not going to sit well with civil libertarians not to mention ordinary people.

From the governments perspective, the choice to remain unvaccinated poses a real risk of harm to others unless those who refuse vaccinations are willing to self-quarantine—which most refuse to do. It turns out that the majority of those who remain unvaccinated also resist social distancing and mask-wearing. Now I personally think it is stupid and selfish to refuse vaccination when it has been shown again and again that the more people who remain unvaccinated, the higher the probability that the virus will mutate and spread, affecting both vaccinated and unvaccinated. It is even more objectionable to me that these same people to refuse to wear a mask. Indeed, if this pandemic has taught us anything it is that we are all a fact of each other’s reality, and we, therefore, share some responsibility towards one another.

But now, for the sake of argument, let’s just assume that there are people who have refused vaccination yet are still exercising social distancing protocols and the wearing of masks. I think it is reasonable to say they do not pose a risk of harm to others. However, my sense is that if they refuse to be vaccinated because they are concerned with potential long-term effects then imposing vaccine passports for basic activities will not persuade them otherwise—in fact it will actually impede the effort of vaccine rollout by disincentivizing the very populations who most need incentivising.

I’d be much happier if governments around the world spent their time, money and effort on global vaccine equity and the fight to ensure universal access to vaccines rather than things like vaccine passports. In moments of crisis we are often all too willing to accept increased surveillance, and will tend to give out health and other private information to companies and governments. What we often fail to demand are sunset provisions that specifically outline when things like vaccine passports will end. If the science of COVID-like pathogens is right, pandemics will become the norm not the exception.

One might argue with some justification that there just is no returning to ‘normal’. It seems that for the foreseeable future we will live under the medicalization of politics and the politicization of medicine. So, when does the state of exception evoked in relation to the exceptional measures like Vaccine Passports end? Should they go on forever? Who gets to know my personal health record or whether I am vaccinated or not—do corporations and tech companies that develop the software have access to this info? Who really benefits from the additional verification provided by vaccine passports? In whose interests, are they? What of those people who for very good medical reasons cannot be vaccinated? Should they be discriminated against because of something that is out of their control? Who decides when, where and in what situations vaccine passports are necessary?

Asking these kinds of questions is by no means intended to prop up anti-vax protests or anti-vax aggression against the public or health professionals. Indeed, I am of the opinion that governments should meet anti-vax aggression with tough counter-measures--including criminal measures--that protect health professionals. Moreover, anti-vaccine disinformation is a genuine health issue--a problem governments can actually meet with accurate, targeted counter-messaging and public education from the perspective of local and global health communities.

It is clear that governments do have the authority to impose regulations, laws and vaccine passports in cases they deem to be in the public interest. The problem is that governments, in so many cases, are very quick to impose regulations on individual citizens, but often very reluctant to impose regulations on corporations that emit greenhouse gases and release toxins into water and air. Climate warming, encroaching on wildlife habitats, deforestation, factory farming, etc. all create the perfect conditions for “zoonotic” diseases like SARS-CoV-2. If we continue in this fashion it is inevitable that we will have SARS-CoV-2-3-4 and so on. Thus, the state of exception would then become the norm and legitimate continued government overreach. The intelligent response to COVID is not more surveillance and regulation of citizens but an end to the above-mentioned practices. But of course, that would mean taking on powerful interests and corporations with deep pockets...something that cowardly governments just will not do.

The important take away here is that we should always look with a critical eye and be on our guard when governments impose regulations that in any way threaten privacy or impose strict measures that curtail citizen’s freedom of movement. This means questioning whether indeed the Governments stated purpose of such restrictions are in fact really necessary to stop the spread of a virus and protect public health.

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