How To Quash The Vaccine Passport Debate

Photo: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
The last few weeks have seen most Canadian provinces introduce proof of vaccination policies, and now Justin Trudeau has made good on his election promise to regulate vaccines for federal government employees and air/rail travel within Canada. The moves are all part of an effort to kick COVID’s butt (before it kicks ours), and have been largely popular. New polling shows that “vaccine passports” are supported by almost 80% of Canadians. But that still leaves one in five in the anti-vax category and in the event that you run into them, you should probably have your talking points prepared.
With that in mind — and with the help of the experts — Refinery29 created this “not buts” guide to vaccine passports: a rundown of the most frequently invoked “against” arguments and how to shut them down calmly and rationally.

But my civil liberties!

This is probably the most frequently flown flag among the hardcore anti-vaccine passport camp — a preferred stance of the protesters who hurl obscenities (and gravel!) at the prime minister and harass staff outside of hospitals. Just to be clear, civil liberties are important, and if you don’t believe us believe Cara Zwibel, the director of the fundamental freedoms program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, who gave us a quick 101 on restricting freedom in times of crisis: “When you are looking at policies that limit civil liberties (basically freedom of action and speech), you want to consider two factors. First, whether the restrictions are necessary and second whether they are proportional to the situation at hand.”
In the case of a deadly global pandemic, Zwibel believes the government is on solid ground when asking its citizens to prove vaccination in order to engage in non-essential activities like going to restaurants, sports events, and movie theatres, as opposed to essential activities — grocery store, pharmacy, etc. — where passports are not required. The new travel requirements are “maybe more of a grey area,” she says (meaning there are plenty of reasons to travel that could be considered essential), but arguably when you are in a confined space like an airplane or train car, the risk of spread becomes greater.
This speaks to proportionality, i.e., when the threat is higher, more significant restrictions may be justified. Hence why so many colleges and universities have also introduced vaccine mandates: “When we look at vaccine requirements on campuses, restricting access to education feels pretty significant, however these are environments where you have a large group in close contact over a prolonged period of time, so you could argue that the requirement is justifiable.” Zwibel says, though she is unclear on why providing a negative test wouldn’t be a reasonable alternative.
At some point, she says, it’s likely that someone (a student, a person who needs to travel for work) will mount a legal challenge against the current regulations, however, “in a case where public safety is at issue, the courts are likely to be very deferential to government’s position.”  

But my privacy! 

Another argument popular among the nouveau libertarian set, and a theoretically valid one, Zwibel says. “Any time there is the transfer of personal data, you want to be sure that enough is being done to protect privacy.” For the most part, she believes that the provinces have been mindful of said privacy concerns — Ontario’s soon-to-be-introduced QR code will show the minimum amount of information required and no info will be stored on the scanning device, for example.
Still, there are some examples that strike her as potentially “invasive and unnecessary.” Currently in Ontario, people must either present their passport or present a document stating their reason for medical exemption. “I don’t see why a person should have to reveal their private medical condition to whoever is minding the door at a restaurant,” Zwibel says. “I don’t know why their documentation would have to be so specific, but maybe that will change with the QR codes.”

But if your vaccine protects you, why should *I* have to get vaxxed?

Eighteen months in and there are still people who don’t understand that the whole “you do you” thing has its limitations when it comes to a highly contagious virus. Yes, a person who gets vaccinated is protecting themselves (from catching COVID and, crucially, from severe outcomes if they do get sick), but there is also a public health piece: “High overall vaccination rates protect everyone because they limit the opportunities that the virus has to spread and to mutate,” explains Samantha Yammine, a neuroscientist and science communicator behind the @ScienceSam Instagram account (follow her!).
Higher community rates of vaccination are also the most effective strategy we have against preventing future lockdowns. It’s pretty ironic (read: maddening beyond words) that the same people protesting lockdowns are typically the ones who don’t want to take the most obvious step we have towards ensuring they don’t happen. 

But there are legitimate reasons not to be vaccinated

This is true (see Zwibel’s comments about privacy above), and we need to do as much as possible to accommodate and protect those people who can’t be vaccinated (including get vaccinated!!!). It’s also important to recognize the very real and legit reasons for mistrust in the medical establishment, particularly in BIPOC communities and how that may play into vaccine hesitancy.
Finally, there are accessibility and equity issues that fall disproportionately onto marginalized communities. “I can’t tell you how many people I have spoken to who don’t have the vaccine yet because they can’t get the time off work, they can’t afford childcare,” Zwibel says. Given this reality, it is incumbent on the governments that are mandating vaccines to make every effort to ensure equal access. In Toronto, for example, the Sprint Strategy and door-to-door campaigns aimed to bring vaccines to the hardest hit and most vulnerable. 

But people who are vaccinated are just as likely to spread the virus as people who aren't. We’re mandating a vaccine that doesn’t work! 

This extremely misleading factoid has been flying around the internet faster than the couch guy TikTok. You can watch Science Sam break it down in detail, or just understand that while, yes, fully vaxxed individuals can transmit the virus, they are 85% less likely to catch the virus and — altogether now! — you have to have COVID-19 to spread COVID-19.
Imagine we both roll in red paint and you’re naked (i.e., unvaccinated) and I’m wearing a full-body stocking. Sure, I’m probably going to have some paint on my face, in my hair or whatever, but you’re going to look like Kylie Jenner in this extremely disturbing new promo for her latest collab. And even if I do get sick, there is plenty of data that shows that vaccinated individuals clear the virus faster and probably carry a less-infectious viral load

But I don’t want to live in a surveillance state! Today it’s proof of vaccination, what’s next?

“What’s next is that we survive the pandemic!” says Yammine. Zwibel agrees, but says it’s important that we push provincial governments for transparency when it comes to timeline and end dates. “If we accept that vaccine passports are necessary at the moment, then when do they become unnecessary?”
These kinds of questions help protect societies against tyranny, but also more everyday examples of government overreach. For example, taking off your shoes at airport security is a holdover from the post 9/11 era — ”more about creating the impression of safety than safety itself,” Zwibel says. This goes back to what she was saying earlier about proportionality. “We want to know that there is an end date to policies that restrict freedom and that it’s not just going to become the “new normal.” 

But my body, my choice!

This is a subset of the civil liberties argument, one we’re singling out because of its specific heinousness. (Same goes for people comparing vaccine mandates to racial oppression and the Holocaust.) “We often see this where their fringe beliefs co-opt language from other activist movements as a way to gain credibility and flip the narrative,” says Yammine.
If you come across someone spouting this argument, try telling them that the government requiring vaccination to enter certain social spaces is, literally, a pro-choice proposition. Or just tell them to shut the eff up. Reproductive freedom is no joke right now and we don’t need a bunch of disingenuous, anti-sciencers tacking their agenda to our cause. 

But they’re so easily faked!

Okay sure, it is possible to get a falsified vaccine passport. There have been plenty of reports from businesses about people digitally altering docs, and there are even services selling the fake docs online. Which is not so different from the fake ID you scored to buy Smirnoff Ice in high school, and yet somehow the government didn’t decide to scrap age requirements on buying alcohol altogether. Imagine if we got rid of seatbelts just because a few people opt not to wear them.  
Laws and policies that keep us safe aren’t based on 100% compliance. They are based on the fact that most of us buy into a social covenant and a few wannabe hackers doctoring PDFs in their parents’ basements aren’t going to change that.
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.

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