There are currently around 17 COVID passports under development, from the World Health Organization, to a coalition of tech companies, to the International Air Transport Association, to a bunch of others. New York State has already announced that it will require a passport developed by IBM to get into Madison Square Garden and other venues. Problem is, with so many programs on the way, it threatens confusion and increases the likelihood of fraud. Therefore, the Biden administration is looking to create federal guidelines addressing technical, ethical, and privacy concerns. “Our role is to help ensure that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy,” said White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients.
Equity looms large—Black and brown communities are lagging in vaccinating, while elderly populations might have less access to smart phones. So making sure that the passport isn’t another vehicle toward exclusion and discrimination is critically important. Furthermore, any such passport system needs to account for a great deal of unknown variables, such as whether booster shots will be required, whether we’ll need different shots for different variants, and the length of time any vaccine remains effective. And of course, how do you guarantee that people aren’t forging their vaccine paperwork, usually just a piece of paper with a stamp or scribble on it? What about foreign travelers? How do you verify their vaccinations? And do all vaccines count, even ones with less-than-optimal success rates?
But no one would be most adversely affected by a passport system than those idiot conservatives too f’n stupid to get vaccinated. Sentiments such as this one are common:
Florida man (and governor) Ron DeSantis has already vowed to block any passport use in his state:“It’s completely unacceptable. You want to go to a movie theater, should you have to show that? No. You want to go to a game, [or] a theme park? No. So we’re not supportive of that.”
Ironically, the economy won’t be fully open until everyone feels safe engaging in “normal” behavior, and that won’t happen until safety can be guaranteed. It is unbelievably counterproductive to stand in the way of that, for what, for 2024 presidential brownie points? That only goes so far when you’re still busy killing off your potential supporters. (Remember, it’s Republicans who most refuse to vaccinate.)
As of now, the Biden administration is building a great deal of good will with their masterful and competent vaccine rollout.
Interestingly, not only do independents approve 57-39, but even Republicans seem to be grudgingly coming along, with a 12-point net improvement in satisfaction since late February.
Israel is the world leader in COVID-19 passport development, giving us a preview of coming attractions. “People who get vaccinated need to know that something has changed for them, that they can ease up,” says Nadav Eyal, a prominent television journalist. “People want to know that they can have some normalcy back.” And that’s the key—for the vaccinate holdouts, offering a carrot might be just the push needed to get them to take the shot. Indeed, conservative pollster Frank Luntz found in one of his focus groups of die-hard Trump supporters that “their desire to see family, go on vacation and resume other aspects of daily life outpaced fear of the shots, particularly if travel companies and others moved to require proof of vaccination.”
Bloomberg columnist Tyler Cowen has suggested a bit of a compromise: announce a vaccine passport, but never enforce it. That way, the threat of the passport offers enough of a carrot helping push vaccination rates into herd-immunity levels, without actually having to deal with all the thorny technical, ethical, equity, and political problems.
Not me, though. Until I can be assured that everyone at that baseball game that can be vaccinated is vaccinated, or at that concert venue, or even that indoor restaurant, I’m in no hurry to open myself up to greater risk. And I’m not even in a high-risk group—I’m young, healthy, with zero comorbidities. The COVID-19 passport would ensure that unlike the Senate, a minority of mostly rural white conservatives don’t hold the rest of the country hostage.
The Biden administration has promised more information on their passport guidelines by next week.