/ May 9, 2021
By John J. Metzler
“Your papers Please,” has long been the customary greeting for people crossing borders, visiting many foreign countries, or sometimes even moving about cities under Covid “lockdown.”
At its worst the question conjures up what I call the “Checkpoint Charlie” syndrome, crossing into East Berlin or back during the bad old days or some other nervous foray into the East Bloc before 1989.
Now the same aura could be coming here. Naturally, it’s all about Covid, the seemingly perennial pandemic which has ravished the world and greatly restricted travel and freedoms. The restrictions are all about science, political science, where governments on all levels see another bureaucratic opportunity to protect and control movement; naturally for your own good.
Vaccine passports would be such a measure. They would record your COVID vaccinations, store data on your health, and then presumably reopen the doors to the world for you.
The “passport” would probably be some sort of a biometric credit card required to visit sporting arenas, museums, restaurants and naturally allow wider air travel. Given that more people are now getting vaccinated the “passport” would be the logical next step to prove both compliance and offer a reward.
From a technical standpoint this is probably pretty simple to implement. I recall interviewing Estonia’s Prime Minister a few years ago and being genuinely surprised by the size and scope of that small Baltic democracy’s “health card” which all citizens must carry. It has just about everything about you and your health status stored on a computer chip on the credit card sized document. Impressive…to a point.
Without moralizing, the issue of vaccine passports is less about technology than about civil rights and liberties.
Big Tech plutocrats can probably implement this task over the weekend and make a fortune doing so. But then there are the very real constitutional concerns here in the U.S. about control as well as conformity.
Back in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s I remember needing the “International Certificate of Vaccination,” a little yellow booklet issued by the U.S. Health authorities and the World Health Organization (remember them?).
The booklet, recording your shots and vaccines with dates of the jabs, was needed even for travel in Europe and beyond. While everybody had the “plain vanilla” shots I recall being particularity proud to get a Yellow Fever shot and later some sort of special jab before going to Panama.
Last year Operation Warp Speed saw government and the private sector join forces to “follow the science” and create the vaccines. Despite the naysayers and prophets of doom, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson created the lifesaving vaccines in record time.
New York State is talking about the <em>Excelsior Pass</em> as being the vaccine passport. Sounds impressive, even magisterial, but given the Pandemic of Fear
, such “voluntary documentation” virtue signaling is almost certain to build the us and them
society where the keys to the kingdom are a digital app on your smartphone.
What are the Constitutional protections for those people who wish to opt out of such plans but still wish to have freedom of movement?
The Excelsior Pass
is being developed by IBM; you can carry a printed copy or keep a digital version on your phone. “The first-in-the-nation Excelsior Pass
heralds the next step in our thoughtful, science-based reopening,” according to New York’s controversial Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
New York City and State has been decimated by the Pandemic; NY City which was a global tourist hub fell from 66 million tourists in 2019 to a loss of two thirds of its visitors in 2020.
While seemingly simple, achieving a unified global health passport may be a real hurdle. Different countries, conflicting national approaches, and the myriad of vaccines beyond the widely accepted American and European versions, can create confusion.
The U.S. or European Union countries will feed the info into national databases and cross-check with airlines. For land travel, a vaccine app can provide identification at borders such as Canada or within some European countries. A unified international system remains elusive at least in the short run.
Yet this re-embrace of globalization raises troubling questions; how secure is the data from hacking? Do QR code verification devices also record and store data? What role will nosy governments play in monitoring such data from both its citizens and foreign visitors?
Vaccine Passports are clearly possible technically, but it’s time for pause until after civil and political rights have been properly protected.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).
Free Press International