Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many countries have imposed various restrictions. The rest of the world has imported the lockdown strategy, first used in China, restricting businesses that are classified as non-essential. Vaccination has been presented as a way to return to pre-COVID-19 times, but it has led to new government-imposed restrictions. Indeed, the EU and Israel have implemented the idea of a vaccine passport to varying degrees. Canada must take this trend seriously because it is coming to North America.
European and Israeli Vaccine Passports
Vaccine passports create major problems. The MIT Technology Review reports that in Israel: “Vaccinated people can download an app that displays their ‘green pass’ when they are asked to show it. The app can also display proof that someone has recovered from covid-19.” For now, a prototype is used with “a paper card, similar to the one people currently receive when they’re vaccinated. The paper card could offer multiple forms of verification, scannable in the form of QR codes, allowing you to show a concert gatekeeper…” In other words, some public areas are open only to people who hold a green pass (vaccine passport).
The European Commission, which is the EU’s executive branch, supports the same solution in the form of a Digital Green Certificate, stating in a press release that: “The Digital Green Certificate will be proof that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, received a negative test result or recovered from COVID-19. It will be available, free of charge, in digital or paper format. It will include a QR code to ensure security and authenticity of the certificate.” Due to the shortage of vaccines in Europe, this passport will also offer proof that the individual has tested negative for COVID-19. The press release also stated that the “Member States remain responsible to decide which public health restrictions can be waived for travellers.” Indeed, due to the EU’s nature and the diversity of policies among the member states, it is logical for them to make the final decision. After all, it would be politically difficult to impose a system of vaccine passports in Sweden, which has very few restrictions compared to France or Germany.
Both the Israeli and European passports are touted as facilitating safe, free movement in their territories and restoring some freedoms. However, these passport policies are worrisome.
Opening the Pandora’s Box of Social Control
The vaccine passport is described as a temporary measure. But recent history has shown that economist Milton Friedman was right when he said: “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” Ironically, the European Commission states that this pass program will end when the World Health Organization (WHO) declares the pandemic over. However, the WHO said it was not in favour of this system. Moreover, the vaccine passport concept is similar to the Chinese social credit system. Using a point system, the Chinese government monitors an individual’s behaviour and they are then either permitted or prohibited to travel. Citizens of China have a social credit score based on their deeds, writes Xinyuan Wang: “Those on the ‘blacklist’ are prevented from buying plane or train tickets, for instance, as well as working as civil servants or in certain industries.” The vaccine passport violates freedom of movement. The collection of data is also concerning. Scanning passes when going to a restaurant or a concert lets authorities know people’s habits and this can be a violation of privacy.
But more importantly, vaccine passports will create a dangerous precedent. Tracking people and determining whether they can engage in activities based on their civic behaviour is a mass social control policy. Even if there is a return to normal life, this precedent could spur the government to use this strategy for other crises.
From the beginning of this crisis, authoritarianism, rather than targeted measures, has managed the pandemic. These endless restrictions will seriously scar our democratic system if they don’t end very soon.
Alexandre Massaux is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
Photo by Lukas on Unsplash.