IN what seems to be a race against Covid-19 — to execute effective measures to control and ultimately put an end to its devastating impacts faster than its spread — countries globally have started to vaccinate their citizens.
Following this, proof of inoculation or immunity via a “vaccine passport”, meant to assist border crossing without testing and quarantine, has been a hotly-debated topic. The vaccine seems to be the only hope of returning to a pre-pandemic normal, hence the desperation to get this right.
Many have expressed their support and taken steps to implement the vaccine passport, especially European countries.
Some governments are leveraging smartphone applications for this initiative, for instance, Hungary and Israel. In addition, the latter also plans to allow vaccinated people to attend cultural and sports events, among other perks.
To fill the demand, the private sector, especially tech giants, is racing to build smart vaccine passports. While there has yet to be a common standard for the vaccine passport, the World Health Organisation (WHO) intends to use technology for this purpose and also to avoid unnecessary replication efforts.
However, several countries are opposing the concept of vaccine passports, taking into account the severity of the risks to individuals and communities. Privacy, security, discrimination and exclusion are among the concerns that remain deeply contentious.
Some of these dynamics have been raised in the earlier tech responses to Covid-19. Unfortunately, there have been cases where the government’s promises were broken and public trust shattered, despite WHO’s warnings against using health tracking outside the realm of public health.
Vaccinating the global population will take a significant amount of time, hence there are worries that it might create unintentional hierarchies in society where the unvaccinated are treated as second-class citizens.
Also, if the vaccine passport was to be used beyond the purpose of travelling, it may result in the denial of access to public amenities, deepening the segregation of disadvantaged groups and compromising their freedoms and rights.
In terms of security and privacy concerns, it will be hard to ensure that personal information and health data remain protected when opportunities for exploitation are extensive and lucrative.
Moreover, vaccine sceptics are still arguing over the unknowns surrounding the vaccine, for instance the duration of protection and whether those inoculated could still transmit the virus.
In Malaysia, a former deputy health minister has cautioned the government about the vaccine passport, highlighting the risk of ineffectiveness of the vaccines which could cause a spike in infections and spread the virus further here.
Similarly, the Health director-general had also expressed his view that the vaccine should not be seen as an immunity passport, as the development is very new and requires intense monitoring.
Anticipating the potential issues, it is clear that this initiative needs to be closely audited and monitored.
First and foremost, decision-making by governments as well as the deployment of technological solutions by the private sector need to be based on epidemiological evidence.
Secondly, the processing and collection of personal data must adhere to the obligations on data protection and privacy. This includes the principles of transparency, fairness, confidentiality and integrity, as well as limitation of storage and accessibility, in order to protect citizens from data abuse.
Lastly, consideration must be given to other threats and issues such as discrimination and exclusion. Relevant organisations such as WHO and think-tanks should play an active role to continuously research and advise on Covid-19 immunity, focusing on the deep human rights impacts caused by the measures surrounding the vaccine passport.
As Malaysia starts to roll out the Covid-19 vaccination programme by the end of this month, the possibility of a vaccine passport should also be explored.
However, there are significant questions that need to be answered before the initiative can be safely adopted.
While the idea of a vaccine passport could be tempting as the golden ticket to normalcy, at the end of the day, adequate safeguards for the people should be the priority.
This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 10 February 2021.