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TSS EXCLUSIVE: COVID Vaccine Passports May Help Revive Economies But Critics Say There’s A Catch

by Rhodilee Jean Dolor

In an attempt to bring back the old normal while preventing the spread of new COVID-19 infections, government leaders and health authorities worldwide turn to a potential solution: vaccine passports.

Vaccine passports are supposed to indicate that the holders now have some immunity against the virus, which means that other people can interact with the passport holder without as great a risk of getting infected.  Passports offer a potential solution that will allow people to more comfortable travel and engage in activities that were hampered by the pandemic. With a document suggesting that someone can’t spread the respiratory disease, passport holders could go to places and attend events that are otherwise restricted for the unvaccinated.

Countries Adopt Vaccine Passport System

Israel rolled out its vaccine passport, the Green Pass, in February for individuals who had doses of the coronavirus vaccine or have recovered from the infection. 

The pass can be a physical document or downloaded to a smartphone. It serves as a person’s ticket to activities like dining in a restaurant, attending gatherings, and even traveling abroad. Israel has struck deals with Mediterranean neighbors Greece and Cyprus to allow its citizens with the passes to visit these two countries.

Other countries are now adopting similar initiatives. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed recently that the government will test out a COVID-status certification system through which people who want to travel and attend events can prove they have protection against COVID-19.

South Korea also announced that it will launch a mobile app that will provide digital proof of vaccination. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said the blockchain-powered vaccine passport will be officially launched in April 2021. Japan, China, and Denmark also plan to introduce similar systems. 

The US has a different stance on vaccine passports, though. President Joe Biden’s administration does not want the federal government to issue vaccine credentials or store people’s vaccination data in a centralized database. It intends to encourage private sector companies and non-profit organizations to develop solutions.

The Good And The Bad

Good intentions may have propelled the introduction of vaccine passports globally. For one, the system allows nations to reopen their economies and revive businesses that crashed amid restrictions against gatherings and unnecessary travels.

In announcing the launch of the first official vaccine passport in the US, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pointed out the crucial role of the Excelsior Pass in the state’s “science-based reopening.”

“New Yorkers have proven they can follow public health guidance to beat back COVID, and the innovative Excelsior Pass is another tool in our new toolbox to fight the virus while allowing more sectors of the economy to reopen safely and keeping personal information secure,” Cuomo said.

However, vaccine passports have become a hotly debated topic. Issues of the system’s potential dangers have emerged, with possible violation of privacy being one of the top concerns.  Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the New York-based Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, noted that Gov. Cuomo did not publish a privacy policy on the pass. “We have no idea how this data can be tracked and if it’s accessible to police,” he commented. 

Excelsior Pass uses blockchain, and while data on these digital ledgers are typically public, Excelsior Pass uses a private blockchain, which means only authorized parties can check the contents. Some fear that the setup may lead to abuse because of lacking clarity on how the collected data is protected. Blockchain experts also question the necessity of using the technology underpinning Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies since issues on the data’s veracity could compromise the system. 

“Blockchain solves a very specific problem around not trusting people, and the problem with this vaccine stuff is you do trust people; you have to trust the data being entered into the blockchain is an actual trusted reflection of who’s vaccinated or not,” said Matthew Green, who co-created the Zerocash protocol of the Zcash cryptocurrency.

Ana Beduschi, an associate law professor at the University of Exeter, also warned that digital health passports raise questions on data privacy and human rights.  “If some people cannot access or afford COVID-19 tests or vaccines, they will not be able to prove their health status, and thus their freedoms will be de facto restricted,” she said.

Other US states already banned vaccine passports in their jurisdiction. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who recently signed an executive order against the documentation in the Sunshine State, argued that it may harm patient privacy. He also said that the system may create two classes of citizens based on vaccination records.“Requiring so-called COVID-19 vaccine passports for taking part in everyday life–such as attending a sporting event, patronizing a restaurant, or going to a movie theater–would create two classes of citizens based on vaccinations.” his executive order reads

The World Health Organization (WHO) also opposes the idea of using certificates of vaccination in allowing international travel, saying it may not be an effective strategy to restart travel. The UN agency noted there are still uncertainties on the effectiveness of COVID jabs in reducing the transmission of the virus and the still limited availability of the vaccines. “At this stage, we would not like to see vaccination passports as a requirement for entry or exit because we are not sure at this stage that the vaccine prevents transmissions,” said WHO spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris.

The Battle Continues

The world is still at war against the pandemic. At the time of writing, nearly 23 million are still infected with COVID-19. The necessity of using a vaccine passport is one of the unprecedented issues that the world has to face as the battle against COVID continues.

Sooner or later, as researchers hopefully find a cure and the world finally develops herd immunity against the illness, people can eventually mingle with others and explore new places without restrictions and fear of getting infected. For now, though, we can only hope that the world’s leaders make the best decision in making sound policies amid the crisis, and this includes settling whether or not to adopt a system based on people’s vaccination status.

The Starset Society

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