Picture: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC
Picture: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC

I downloaded my vaccine passport the other day.

Of course, it wasn’t called a vaccine passport. Rather, it was an “Excelsior Pass”, issued by New York State. In addition to verifying that I have been fully vaccinated, it has a QR code that ticket-takers can scan when I want to go to Madison Square Garden to see the resurgent Knicks or Yankee Stadium to watch the faltering Yankees. It can also show the last time the holder has tested negative for Covid-19.

The Excelsior Pass, developed with IBM, is the first government-issued proof of vaccination in the US But it won’t be the last — at least 17 more are in the works in the US alone. In the media, and among government officials, vaccine passports are the subject of debate and controversy. Right-wing pundits and politicians have denounced them as a threat to personal liberty — just like mask mandates. Many liberals worry that they will further worsen “pandemic inequality” because the vaccination rate among the poor is low. Earlier this month, the White House declared that Americans would not be required to “obtain a single vaccination credential”.

The Washington Post reported in late March that the department of health & human services is “working to develop a standard way of handling credentials … that would allow Americans to prove they’ve been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus as businesses try to reopen”. At a recent White House pandemic briefing, Jeff Zients, Biden’s coronavirus coordinator, said that the administration’s goal was to “help ensure that any solution 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”.

That doesn’t exactly sound as if the administration is opposed to the idea of vaccine passports. And, indeed, it’s not. There may not be a single national passport, but states and the private sector are developing many certification apps. Regardless of what they are called or however strident the opposition, vaccine passports will be inevitable for any return to something resembling normal interaction.

For example, universities will need them soon. Several dozen universities are already requiring all incoming students for the autumn 2021 semester to be vaccinated — small schools such as Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, and large institutions such as Duke University.

Most on campus recognise that the sooner the vast majority of our community is vaccinated, the sooner we can return to a more traditional campus experience
Brian Clark, Brown University spokesperson

The California State University system is requiring not just students but faculty and staff to be vaccinated once the Food and Drug Administration gives the vaccines its full approval (as opposed to the current emergency use authorisation).2 With additional schools announcing vaccine mandates almost daily, it seems likely that by September most universities will require proof that students have been vaccinated.

Given that universities have been a chief source of infection — with 535,000 Covid-19 cases, according to the New York Times — it is hardly a surprise that school officials nationwide would want a vaccinated student body. Brian Clark, a Brown University spokesperson, said there has been very little pushback. “Most on campus recognise that the sooner the vast majority of our community is vaccinated, the sooner we can return to a more traditional campus experience,” he said.

Americans who want to take that long-delayed European vacation will need vaccine passports. Just a few days ago, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, told the New York Times that because the US is using vaccines that have been approved by the European Medicines Agency, Americans would be free to travel to any of the EU countries. But to do so, they will have to prove they have received one of the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines. From the Times article:

Technical discussions have been going on for several weeks between EU and US officials on how to practically and technologically make vaccine certificates from each place broadly readable so that citizens can use them to travel without restrictions.

Inevitably, airlines will have to enforce any vaccine certification requirement imposed by European countries, which means that many international flights will be restricted to those who have been vaccinated and can prove it.

And on it goes. Professional sports are going to want to employ vaccine passports, especially once they are allowed to fill up their arenas. Concert venues will, too. And Broadway theatres and cruise lines; really, just about anywhere that people come in close contact.

Keep track

Vaccine passports aren’t the death knell of liberty that opponents proclaim. Many people have come to take for granted a lot of mandated safety requirements that they resisted at first such as car seat belts and motorcycle helmets in some states. “Everyone is sick of masks,” Donald G McNeil Jr, the former New York Times pandemic reporter, wrote recently. “So the only way we’re going to finish it is through vaccination. And we do need to know who’s vaccinated.”

As mentioned earlier, the Excelsior Pass that I downloaded doesn’t just show that I’m vaccinated, it can also keep track of Covid-19 tests. So far, venues such as Yankee Stadium allow the unvaccinated in if they can show they had either a negative PCR or rapid antigen test within the previous 72 hours. I suspect most other places will do the same.

Thus, people who object to the Covid-19 vaccine can’t complain of being discriminated against. They can go to ball games or concerts and sit side-by-side with the vaccinated.

But, perhaps unwittingly, allowing people to be tested instead of vaccinated also provides incentive for full vaccination. Imagine being an unvaccinated Yankees’ season-ticket holder. Such a person would have to take a Covid-19 test a few days before most home games. Getting vaccinated means never having to be tested again. The Covid-19 test requirement thus becomes what behavioural economists like to call a “nudge” to encourage vaccination.

Richard Thaler, the Nobel-prize winning behavioural economist at the University of Chicago, says vaccine passports should feel like a “perk to those who have been inoculated” — one that would lure the more reluctant to get their jabs as well.

It’s pointless to argue against vaccine passports. They are simply too useful to set aside. Once they are in use for European travel and crowded events, even resisters such as governor Greg Abbott of Texas and governor Ron DeSantis of Florida1 will most likely tamp down their political objections.

Just imagine going through customs in Paris, pulling out your phone, watching the customs official scan your vaccine passport and then waving you through. It will feel almost as good as getting vaccinated in the first place, and painless to boot.

1In all cases, people who can cite religious or medical reasons for skipping vaccinations are exempt.

2Abbott has forbidden any state agency to require a vaccine passport. DeSantis has gone even further: He has said that private businesses cannot mandate vaccine passports. However, it is difficult to see how he will be able to enforce such a decree.

Bloomberg Opinion. For more articles like this visit bloomberg.com/opinion

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