In a bid to regain normalcy and kickstart cross-border travel, governments are debating rolling out vaccine passports to prove inoculation against COVID-19. While this solution may revive the struggling tourism sector and possibly improve the economic impact of the pandemic, world governments must consider all ethical and health effects that may present themselves as a result of the decisions taken on the vaccine passports.
Vaccine passports indeed offer several benefits. Aside from lessening the restrictions on movement and physical interaction since last year, it also improves countries’ economic prospects, especially countries that are highly dependent on the tourism industry. This is why we have popular tourism destinations such as Greece and Spain advocating for the idea. Others such as Israel, Iceland, China, and Saudi Arabia have rolled out various forms of the passport that allow holders to bypass COVID-19 restrictions and facilitate foreign travel.
However, despite the economic benefits that vaccine passports present, we need to address the ethical concerns that come with these benefits.
Not all countries are equal when it comes to vaccine access
The global access to COVID-19 vaccines is incredibly unequal. As can be seen from the COVID-19 vaccine world map below, the vaccination rate in developing countries in the global south is significantly lower than those of more advanced economies. Even more alarming are the rates in Africa, especially the sub-Saharan Africa region.
According to experts, that is partly due to the vaccine nationalism and hoarding behaviors of developed countries in the global north. Also, it can be attributed to the fact that wealthy countries are the producers of these vaccines and have the healthcare capacity to roll out large-scale vaccination programs. In contrast, lower-income nations lack the healthcare infrastructure for mass vaccination programs and are not provided with sufficient vaccines.
However, with the increase in vaccine supply and approval of more vaccines, the gap between wealthy and low-income nations will become narrower and access to vaccines more equitable. Which is why the COVAX program was initiated, but experts warn we should not expect result before 2023 or 2024.
A vaccine hierarchy may emerge
Different vaccines with varying efficacy levels present another ethical concern, as there is yet to be a plan regarding the exact vaccines that will be used to determine whether or not an individual is safe to travel.
Given the development and widespread of new variants of Covid-19, it now more important to address these questions. Besides, there is no concrete duration for the COVID-19 immunity provided by the vaccines or whether the vaccines prevent the virus from spreading. And scientists are still uncertain on whether vaccinated individuals can pass on the coronavirus to other people.
Advanced countries may stockpile vaccines, slowing global vaccination efforts
Using vaccine passports as a requirement for travel may deepen the global pandemic crisis. Experts saying countries will need to vaccinate their population yearly to maintain immunity, developed economies are likely to halt vaccine supply and build up their reserve for future use. This can discourage them from making vaccines available to less developed countries, hence, slowing down worldwide vaccination speed.
Internal vaccine inequalities
Varying access to vaccines for different ethnic groups within developed nations is another ethical issue presented by vaccine passports. A case in study is the US, where the white majorities are likely to get vaccinated compared to the black minorities. In the UK, people of color and minority ethnic groups are being vaccinated at far slower rates, mainly attributed to vaccine hesitancy.
Besides, since vaccination is being prioritized for older people and individuals with underlying health conditions in some countries, introducing this passport may restrict work immigration for younger people. These can deepen the inequality chasm between different economic classes, especially in countries where vaccination moves at a slower pace.
Economic inequality due to vaccine inequality might become dominant in countries where democracy is practiced and lack vaccination transparency.