Vaccination is essential; Vaccine passports are not! #SaveOurPrivacy

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tl;dr

Vaccine passports are here; but what are they? Are they as useful as government authorities are claiming them to be or are they another form of discrimination being digitalised? In this post, we will take a look at these questions and more to understand whether use of vaccine passports for international travel should be allowed.

Vaccine Passports: What are they?

Imagine a situation where your vaccination status determines whether you get to travel abroad, whether you get to visit restaurants & movie theatres and whether you get access to basic government benefits like ration. For many of us, including those who currently cannot afford/access a vaccine, cannot get one due to medical reasons or do not want to get one for personal reasons, this sounds like the ultimate nightmare. However, this nightmare could soon become reality with the concept of vaccine passports gaining popularity. A vaccine passport, essentially, is a document that shows your vaccination status based on which “governments and private organisations may allow or disallow access to services and spaces on the basis of an individual’s COVID-19 vaccination status, excluding and discriminating against those who have not received a vaccine”. It can either be an actual physical document or it may take the form of a digital passport accessed through an application on your phone. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation,

“(p)aper proof of vaccination raises fewer concerns, as does a digital photo of a paper card displayed on a phone screen. Of much greater concern are scannable vaccination credentials, which might be used to track people’s physical movements through doors and across time.”

Vaccine passports are different from immunity passports which signify a person’s immune status, which is whether a person has developed antibodies in response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. Conversation around the use of vaccine passports to restore international travel to its former glory have been ongoing as governments push for economic recovery from the pandemic. However, it is important to keep in mind that there are still critical unknowns when it comes to whether vaccination is a guarantor of prevention of transmission of the infection.

Concerns surrounding vaccine passports for international travel

A. Ethical

Increasing use of vaccine passports for international travel would mean that a higher number of countries would mandate that such a proof be showcased before allowing individuals to travel internationally, thereby making it the norm. However, vaccine availability and accessibility is non-equitable particularly in low-income and lower middle-income countries, with some countries projected to wait till 2024 for vaccination shots.

It is also likely that demographic groups with higher levels of trust in authorities and medical institutions are the most willing to be vaccinated, and this may adversely affect marginalized communities.

Currently, a negative COVID test is seen as sufficient for travel abroad, a vaccine passport mandate could soon jeopardise the travel plans of those who wish to travel abroad but do not have access to vaccines (or even those who can’t or don’t want to get one). It would also further delay access to vaccines for those in lower income countries who belong to vulnerable groups as more vaccines would be diverted towards the higher income countries.

Rich countries have (already) ordered almost all of the currently available vaccines, meaning that the average citizen in a high-income country is much more likely to receive a vaccine than a healthcare worker or high-risk citizen in lower-income countries.

B. Legal

The Supreme Court of India has held that the right to travel abroad is an inseverable part of the fundamental right to dignity and personal liberty which can only be curtailed by procedure established by law which should be fair, just, and reasonable, not fanciful, oppressive or arbitrary. Mandating vaccine passports for international travel fails to satisfy any of the stated criteria. The WHO Director-General, in the context of the public health emergency of international concern related to COVID-19 pandemic, issued the following Temporary Recommendation for countries:

At the present time, countries should not introduce requirements of proof of vaccination or immunity for international travel as a condition of entry as there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission and limited availability of vaccines.”

Thus, to allow only the vaccinated to travel while restricting the unvaccinated even though there is no specific data to support the claim that vaccination prevents transmission of the infection would be discriminatory and violative of fundamental rights while also creating a false sense of security which could result in the further spread of the disease.

C. Privacy and surveillance

Issuance of digital vaccine passports, not just for international travel but also for accessing public places and benefits, will also open another can of worms as it would pave the way for the creation of another digital identity scheme that may end up being discriminatory and exclusionary while facilitating surveillance (case in point being Aadhaar where linking welfare schemes to Aadhaar and its biometric verification system has caused mass exclusions, and has even led to starvation deaths). The Electronic Frontier Foundation emphasises the need to be mindful of “the potential that today’s vaccine passport will act as a catalyst toward tomorrow’s system of national digital identification that can be used to systematically collect and store our personal information”. For example, even though the National Digital Health Mission’s Health Data Management Policy states that its guiding principle is ‘security and privacy by design’, the overarching concern of large scale processing of health data in the absence of a data protection legislation remains.

If vaccine passports are made mandatory and issued digitally, it would require the “ability to uniquely identify an individual and validate vaccination status (which) requires international cooperation, orchestration across complex systems and widespread adoption of open interoperability standards to support secure data access or exchange”. Thus, it would result in the creation of a new database containing important health information which would be open to function creep, especially since India lacks a personal data protection law. Function creep occurs when a technology or system gradually widens its scope from its original purpose to encompass and fulfil wider functions. For example, the Delhi Police acquired facial recognition technology for the purpose of finding missing children but now is using them for wider investigation purposes. Such “centralized systems (also) carry risks of surveillance, profiling, exclusion, privacy violations, and cybersecurity threats”. Thus, digital vaccine passports may end up violating not just the right to privacy but also the rights to freedom of movement and peaceful assembly.

Vaccination is essential; Vaccine passports are not!

It is crucial that each and every individual gets safe access to vaccines to ensure that this collective nightmare we are in comes to an end. However, making proof of vaccination a hurdle in international travel or for accessing facilities would lead to unnecessary and harmful exclusion which must be avoided.

Important documents

  1. The World Health Organisation’s Interim Position Paper: Considerations regarding proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travellers dated February 5, 2021 (link)
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