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Vaccine Passports: Public Health Tool, Or Invasion Of Civil Liberties?

The audience waits on opening night at the Khan Theater during a performance where all guests were required to show proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination or full recovery from the virus, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.  (Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo)
The audience waits on opening night at the Khan Theater during a performance where all guests were required to show proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination or full recovery from the virus, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo)

Vaccine passports. They give those vaccinated against COVID-19 access to places the unvaccinated can’t get into — gyms, bars, schools. But is it a reasonable public health tool, or an erosion of civil liberties?


Nita Farahany, professor of law and philosophy at Duke University. Director of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society. (@NitaFarahany)

Ruth Faden, professor of bioethics. Founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. (@fadenethx)

Interview Highlights

What does Israel’s vaccine passport program allow the country to do that it otherwise couldn’t?

Ruth Faden: “It’s not entirely clear, actually. The intent is to be able to open up the economy and also open up people’s lives with less public health risk, so that’s the objective. We get small businesses, large businesses recovering more quickly, more safely from this from the standpoint of the pandemic by limiting access to public venues to people who have some proven immunity, at least for the short term. The other objective, of course, relatedly, is that people be able to enjoy their lives more than they have. … Whether or to what extent the passports will actually achieve those objectives is something we need to interrogate.”

On privacy concerns with a vaccine passport program

Albert Fox Cahn: “Even if this worked as advertised, it would still create a really chilling implication for privacy going forward. You know, this is creating what could turn into a permanent layer of surveillance infrastructure on the scale of nothing we’ve seen since 9/11. Assuming we’re in the world where everyone has access to the vaccine, where everyone can suddenly get it if they want it, where we have that opportunity to reopen. The idea that you have a government app that can track every place you go, that can tell whether or not you’re going to the supermarket, or going to a church, or going to a mosque or going to any number of other crowded spaces.”

Do you have any confidence that we could prevent this surveillance state from happening?

Nita Farahany: “No, I have no confidence that we can prevent that from happening. So I have serious concerns about the equity of vaccine passports, not the least of which is because we do not have universal access to the vaccines right now. Even if we did have universal access to the vaccines, minority populations who have been hit the hardest within the United States don’t have a tremendous amount of trust in our public institutions. And to condition their participation in society on taking the vaccines just further erodes that trust, and further widens the gap.

“And then finally, these are not fully approved yet, right? So they are approved through emergency use authorization, but they haven’t gone through their full regulatory approval process. And requiring people, conditioning their participation on society, on taking a vaccine that has not gone through full regulatory approval, I find deeply problematic to build the kind of public trust and public science in our institutions of oversight that we need to be able to emerge from this pandemic. And to be able to continue forward in adopting the practices that we need to truly be able to reopen society in an equitable fashion.”

Do vaccine passports raise concerns over civil liberties?

Ruth Faden: “I’m sure it does … but I will tell you that right now I’m more focused on the equity questions in the near term. So let’s assume we had a … magic technological solution, or a magic low tech solution to the concerns about this setting some sort of a precedent or transmuting itself into a permanent public health kind of Trojan horse, to a more massive surveillance state. Let’s just take the state of the pandemic right now. And I want to pick up on something that you just said that I think is incredibly important. Right now we’re in a situation in which, depending on the state you’re in, the rates of vaccination in white people is either somewhere in between two to four times higher than among Latinx and African American people. So that’s staggeringly awful.

“There are two reasons why we are suspecting that we are seeing this gap. One is literally barriers to access, whether it’s technology barriers to access to sign up or physical, literal geography barriers to access. It is harder to get a vaccine in low income neighborhoods and geographically isolated areas and in communities that are dominantly communities of color. The other reason it’s pointed to is a very justified distrust that these communities have in government generally, government institutions and specifically in this case, public health institutions and medical care institutions. There are good reasons for this distrust.

“Right now, however, even in low income communities, demand is exceeding supply. That is to say, there are many more African American, Latinx people, low income people, rural people who want the vaccine than can get it. And at very least, we shouldn’t even be talking about vaccine passes until we get to the point where everyone in all communities who want the vaccine have an equal chance of being able to get it. So I’d say we’re nowhere near the point at which it’s even minimally ethically acceptable in the U.S. to offer a vaccine pass.”

Looking to future ethical implications of the pandemic 

Nita Farahany: “I think we hastily put into place emergency measures that yield a lot of our civil liberties. You know, we’re scared. We’re all willing to accept in the moment these different ways of infringing on our civil liberties, increasing surveillance, having our everyday activities, our temperature monitored, giving health information easily and freely away to companies and governments. And we don’t think when we’re doing that that it’s unbelievably important to make sure that we have sunset provisions that are going to end those things when the emergency ends. And once they’re in place without those, it’s too late.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: “Vaccine Passports, Covid’s Next Political Flash Point” — “The next major flash point over coronavirus response has already provoked cries of tyranny and discrimination in Britain, protests in Denmark, digital disinformation in the United States and geopolitical skirmishing within the European Union.”

Wall Street Journal: “Covid-19 Vaccine ‘Passports’ Raise Ethics Concerns, Logistical Hurdles” — “As vaccine rollouts gain momentum, governments world-wide are looking at ways for people to prove they are inoculated against the coronavirus, raising logistical and ethical concerns about whether others will be excluded from daily life.”

Technology Review: “Vaccine passports could erode trust” — “Experts are debating the pros and cons of covid-19 vaccine passports or other types of certification as they attempt to begin reopening public spaces. The idea seems simple on its face: those who can prove they’ve been vaccinated for covid-19 would be able to go places and do things that unvaccinated people would not.”

Syracuse.com: “What is the Excelsior Pass? How NY’s Covid app will be a passport for attending events” — “Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a pilot program for the Excelsior Pass, developed in partnership with IBM, that will work as a passport for attending events in the Covid-19 era.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.