Canada’s vaccine rollout may be a bit of a clusterfug at the moment, but with more and more of us getting the jab, the next step will be figuring out how to move forward safely and fairly. Enter the debate around vaccine passports, which will almost definitely be a reality of international travel and are also being floated as a way to reopen large venues like concerts and sports stadiums, universities, and maybe even gyms and salons and indoor dining.
Which sounds pretty freaking amazing after months where “travel” has meant the journey from kitchen to couch. “We all want to move away from the current state of severe restriction,” says Katrina Plamondon, a health equity researcher at UBC. “But we need to be considerate about how we get there.” The trouble is that along with the possibility of freedom (sweet freedom!), vaccine passports present a whole bunch of legal and ethical headaches — and they may not even be safe!
Here, everything you need to know about COVID-19’s latest lightning-rod topic: How they work, who gets one, and why vaccine passports could be the best of the bad solutions.
What is a vaccine passport and will I be able to get on a plane once I get one?
A vaccine passport (aka vaccine pass, aka vaccine certificate) is really just a catchall term meaning a form of documentation that proves your vaccinated status, the same way a normal passport proves your citizenship, or a driver's licence proves you can drive. As international borders re-open, vaccine passports will probably replace negative COVID tests as a pre-flight requirement. The airline and tourism industries are on board for obvious reasons, and earlier this week Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu confirmed that G7 countries have agreed to “some kind of [passport] system that would be recognizable, no matter where a person was travelling.” This could take the form of an app or plain old paper documentation, and will almost certainly be up and running in the next few months, pushback from the World Health Organization notwithstanding.
What kind of pushback?
The WHO has warned that vaccine passports are unfair and maybe unsafe. Unfair because not all countries have equal access to the vaccine. And unsafe because we’re still not clear on whether vaccinated people can transmit COVID-19. The CDC in the United States recently shared promising news on that front though. And it’s not like requiring proof of vaccination at international borders is a new concept. Plus, if all of the other nations do it, Canada would be pretty crazy not to go along. Earlier this month, Justin Trudeau said vaccine passports for entering and exiting the country will be a likely necessity. Note: He was a lot more iffy on using the same documentation domestically.
How would domestic vaccine passports even work?
For clues, we can look at Israel where the new green pass system allows vaccinated people to engage in such previously mundane and now highly coveted activities like going to the gym, getting your nails done or your hair cut, or attending large gatherings like concerts and sporting events. You’re probably thinking, where do I sign up? But first consider the legal and ethical hornet’s nest. “Essentially what we’re talking about is extending certain rights and privileges to one portion of the population and denying those same rights and privileges to others,” says Plamondon. “Not everyone has access to the vaccine, so is it fair to then say that people who do get treated differently?”And by fair what she really means is constitutional. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has called domestic vaccine passports an “unprecedented erosion” of Charter-protected mobility rights that would likely not stand up to a legal challenge.
On the equality front, Plamondon says that we need to look at the obvious barriers (at the moment most Canadians under 60 still don’t have access to a vaccine), but also the invisible ones: “We know that factors like race and socioeconomic status contribute to vaccine accessibility, so how do we make sure that whatever policies we introduce don’t further disadvantage people who have already been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic?”
What about when everyone does have access to the vaccine? Does that change anything?
As far the fairness issues around vaccine passports go, not really. For starters, not everyone can get vaccinated based on factors like age and certain medical conditions. Just as importantly, not everyone wants to. “Our government can encourage and implore Canadians to get vaccinated, but they can’t force people,” says Plamondon. Which is frustrating — for sure. But what we’re talking about is a person’s right to make decisions about their own body, which every Canadian should care about. In a Globe and Mail op-ed, Brandon Trask (an assistant legal prof at the University of Manitoba) says vaccine passports may be an indirect way for governments to force vaccines upon the population and if that’s the case, that’s a problem.
I don’t want to trample on anyone’s rights. I just want to go to a concert before I turn 50.
And I want to get my hair cut before I get mistaken for Bigfoot! No question, times are tough and nobody (not one single person) wants to think about a second summer in lockdown. Least of all businesses on the brink of collapse. But can these businesses require a person to prove their vaccination status as a prerequisite to service? TBD. “The private sector is not subject to the Charter (which governs things like healthcare and public education), but they do have to observe provincial human rights codes,” says Plamondon. So, for example, a restaurant can have a dress code, but they can’t deny entry based on, say, sexual orientation: “What we will have to find out is how a person’s right to not be vaccinated weighs against the competing rights of business owners to provide a safe workplace.” Same goes for the rights of employers to require vaccinations of employees, or universities of students and faculty. Plamondon says to expect some key legal cases that will establish precedent.
If not vaccine passports, what’s the solution?
Well that’s sort of the whole question and also a summary of the pro-vaccine passport argument, best summarized as: Anyone got a better idea? A recent survey shows that 62% of B.C. residents are in favour. Representatives from various economic communities have voiced support for some sort of passport program, not because it’s perfect or even un-problematic, but after months of lockdown, this may be the best worst option we’ve got. And even equity advocates like Plamondon agree that vaccine passports (applied with nuance and an understanding of the pitfalls) could be useful, as part of a reopening plan.
And the fastest way to get me on a plane!
Possibly, though unless you are in the seniors set (or meet one of the other criteria for vaccine eligibility), you probably don’t want to go packing that suitcase just yet. To state the obvious: A vaccine passport requires a vaccine (in most cases, two of them) and depending on what part of the country you live in, the wait is not over. So feel free to start planning, but for now **broken record alert** stay put.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.