Now that more and more people around the world are getting vaccinated, things are slowly starting to get back to normal. Once the virus is contained and a big part of the population has gotten their vaccines, governments hope to be able to fully return to the pre-Covid state of affairs and thus open the entire economy again. But when will this be, and how? Vaccine passports have been a point of discussion ever since the first vaccines were granted approval by the respective authorities, but the governing body of the EU is yet to convey clarity on the matter of the so called ‘green passports’. While vaccine passports might help us reopen sooner, will it not create an even bigger division between the young and the old, and the poor and the rich? More importantly, will it not threaten the citizens’ right to privacy and freedom of choice? How would the passports work and which countries have already taken some steps towards implementing them? Read on to find out.
Please note that our articles sometimes state views that are those of the writers, and not necessarily those of FAECTOR.
In recent years, we have witnessed less unity within the European Union, from Brexit to the Covid-19 Recovery Fund debacle. However, there was one topic which mounted overwhelming support from the European Members of Parliament (MEPs): the Digital Green Certificate endeavour. Subsequently, the EU announced that it sped up its plans to issue the aforementioned certificates no later than this summer, in the hope of ‘helping to ensure that restrictions currently in place can be lifted in a coordinated manner’. These certificates would be accepted in all EU member states. The certificate will let certain people, specifically those who have been vaccinated, negatively tested in the past 72 hours or have recently recovered from Covid-19, be exempt from certain restrictions. Whether this might be flying to another country, getting an indoor table at a restaurant or even going to a concert, remains to be seen. Ultimately, the exact restrictions to be uplifted for the holders of the Green Certificate are to be determined by each country in particular. Moreover, the same rules account for both the country’s inhabitants and tourists. While this limits to some extent the practicability of the so-called green passports, it also preserves the sovereignty of each EU member state.
While this plan is still being worked out, many countries have already announced their own digital passes in a rather clear sign of malcontent towards the slow-paced proceedings of the EU’s Digital Green Certificates. Denmark for instance, has already been putting its own app, ‘Coronapas’, to use. The app allows people to go to restaurants, museums and even allows them into football stadiums. It verifies whether a person has been vaccinated, tested negative in the past 72 hours or has battled Covid 2 to 12 weeks prior. The passport has become increasingly popular, allowing for a partial reopening of the Danish economy as well as leading to a surge in Covid-19 testing rates. France also seems to be pretty far into the process of rolling out vaccine passports, with a system running on their already existing app ‘TousAntiCovid’. Currently, the system is in trial and only being used on certain flights (both overseas and to/from neighbouring countries). The app, which now has about 15 million users, allows users to upload vaccine records and test results from the country’s centralized health-care system. In the UK we see a similar pattern, where they will implement a new software on their preexisting NHS app. While the new update is still in progress, the idea seems promising given the great number of people who already use the application. Similar endeavours have been undertaken in Israel and the state of New York, while other US states like Florida and Texas banned such ideas entirely.
The EU endeavour has sparked a rather angry response from the WHO, accusing the European policy makers that in their egotistic quest to uplift financial-burdening restrictions, they are instead increasing levels of inequality. Among other more pertinent arguments raised by the WHO representatives, they mentioned uncertainty in regard to the effects of both the vaccines and the virus, which limit the practicability of such a certificate. Something to keep in mind is that, while criticising the EU for trying to help its tourism-dependent member states, WHO is itself working on its own “Smart Vaccination Certificate”.
In the following part of this article, we will tackle some of the most important aspects of the general concept of such a Covid-19 certificate and, in particular, of the EU’s Digital Green Certificate.
Freedom of choice
A rather popular opinion has emerged in regard to the green passport, that instead of facilitating travel, it only conditions people and thus limits their freedom of movement. One such person is none other than Hans Kluge, WHO Europe’s regional director and the WHO representative from the aforementioned interview, who said: "We do not encourage at this stage that getting a vaccination determines whether you can travel internationally or not". While the implementation of these passports does not mean that people without it will be unable to travel internationally, they will still have to follow a long and complicated process in order to do so (i.e., multiple tests required, no Covid-19 symptoms, etc.). This has been reinforced by the European Commission: “Being vaccinated will not be a precondition to travel”.
The argument is valid if one considers pre-Covid-19 state of affairs as the bar for evaluating the effects of said policy. Indeed, two years ago, it would have been unheard of to restrict international travel only for those who had not already had some designated vaccines. Or was it? Anyone who has travelled to Tanzania (wanting to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for instance) and many other countries for that matter, would argue differently. Vaccines for dangerous and more lethal diseases were either required or recommended even then. But, somehow, we seem to have forgotten this. What is more is that we also seem to remain completely oblivious to our status quo. The situation from two years ago is long gone and does not make for the best of comparisons. The reason is that even now, while travel is still allowed, one has to go through painstakingly long processes with no actual guarantee that they can fly/travel. For instance, when wanting to return to Rotterdam in early March, I missed my flight due to an inconclusive PCR test. Three negative PCR tests and another missed flight later, I finally managed to reach the Netherlands. This is the right bar for evaluating the green passport policy and indeed, when taking this into account, it seems to be the better alternative, as long as it does not hurt the people who decided against vaccinating themselves and rewards the people who did. When considering the other uses of the passport (i.e., dining at an indoor table at a restaurant, going to a rave, etc.), as it will also be temporarily available to people who have already had the virus or who have tested negative, it might just allow us to open up indoor activities sooner. Is that not a Pareto improvement?
As far as we know, the vaccine passports will link an individual’s personal info to whether or not they satisfy one of the three conditions to safely travel/waive certain restrictions. In the US, after being vaccinated, people got a (physical) CDC vaccination card. This quickly backfired when reports of fake CDC cards surfaced, and different airports started questioning its validity. It shows us that a vaccine passport cannot be done by simply issuing a piece of paper, and thus the EU came up with its Digital Green Certificates. But the way that these will work, and the technology behind it has not been made clear yet. Many people are concerned that, given the early deadline, the passports’ technology won’t be secure enough. Instead of an independent check we chose to link all of the medical (and possibly even travel) info together, making the risk of personal information leaking even bigger. As much as we would like to trust our governments in their technical abilities, we have seen how previous applications failed to do their job. For instance, the different apps that notify you when you have been in contact with anyone who tested positive were notorious for not doing their job. Then again, this problem could of course be because of the strict European laws limiting the tracking of our location. This begs the question, with all those troubles concerning privacy and money spent on different apps, is it all really worth it?
Even if we were to develop one great Covid passport that cannot be reproduced, with a software that cannot be hacked and an app that has millions of users, which countries would we expect to benefit from it? What age groups do we expect to be the first using them? Legal and ethical implications of a vaccine passport are not to be underestimated. Even within Europe there is an unequal access to vaccines, let alone outside of that. The WHO has indicated that African countries are running out of vaccines and there is much concern surrounding future doses. Together with several Latin-American countries they are going off of vaccine donations, which not many countries seem to be willing to give up. It is also these ‘faster’ countries that are now developing their own Covid passports, finding ways to open travel as soon as possible. Some might see these vaccine passports as a Pareto improvement (hinting at my co-writer). This is definitely an understandable opinion, but let's also be conscious that it is not just a system that will reward the richer countries, and instead think of other ways in which our time and resources could be spent.
My worry regarding the Digital Green Certificate is this; are we perpetuating the already established economic inequalities? Or could it instead be beneficial to smaller countries that the EU is now taking the lead? Do they even really have the option of reinvesting the money going to this new app? Maybe they are simply trying to hold onto a faint European cohesion.
While there are still many unknowns regarding the virus itself and the numerous vaccines developed, there seems to be a consensus among world leaders, the advantages of vaccination outweigh the disadvantages for a great majority of people. And there is the potential benefit of easier travel, having access to indoor venues, restaurants, night clubs, etc. Why not fulfil that potential? Implementing such a green passport could also allow for a partial reopening of the EU economies and provide the travel and hospitality industries a crucial breath of fresh air.
Nonetheless, the green passport is not only a certification of having received the Covid-19 vaccine but can also be granted to people who have already recovered from the virus or who have tested negative in the previous 72 hours. It is worth mentioning that even when having tested negative and having been granted such a green passport for 72 hours, one can still get infected with the virus. This is an important shortcoming of the policy, especially for the people hoping to attend concerts, raves or festivals, given that a bigger crowd might mean a higher risk of infection. Moreover, the aforementioned limitations of our knowledge in regard to both the virus and the vaccines mean that we do not even know for how long one’s antibodies remain in the body, thus what should be the validity period of such a green passport? Honestly, nobody knows.
The different protocols and regulations in place in the EU member states mean that such a pan-continental initiative will have to move mountains in order to achieve its intended efficiency. The scenario in which each member state will implement its own passport is not desirable, given the increased gradient of confusion for international travel. However, it still has the potential to address such problematic circumstances by setting a guideline of regulations applicable for all member states. But how many people will use it? Ultimately, the more the merrier. However, the repercussions could be severe as well given that the planned passport contains significant information about its holder, a cyber-attack might jeopardise the privacy of hundreds of thousands of people.
Moreover, the green passports are said to be digitally distributed to the people, but could also be used in paper form. Ultimately, the most important aspect of said passport is the QR code which contains all the necessary information about the certificate’s holder as well as allowing third parties to check its authenticity. Thus, from the point of view of practicability, the passport is both cheap and easy to use. Who knows? With a decent design, it might actually turn out to be the most popular accessory this year.