As the Covid-19 vaccination drive is gaining momentum, the focus is now to the opening up of the economy including sectors like travel and hospitality. Vaccine passports, one of the tools to smoothen the passage on this re-opening, need to be standardised to rejuvenate such industries.
What is it?
A vaccine passport opens the doors for you in a post-pandemic world. Vaccine passport is a certification of the Covid-19 health status of a citizen, approved by inter-governmental bodies, that can be carried physically or digitally. Covid-19 vaccine passports usually refer to a person’s vaccination status, recent infection record or a recent RT-PCR test result that shows no infection. Most international agencies prefer a digital version of Vaccine Passports for easy scan and retrieval of data for verification. Apart from movement across international borders, such certification can also be the ticket to one’s attending indoor events or restaurants in countries with high rates of vaccination, to promote mobility within their economies. A version of the certification adopted by international airline trade body IATA is being rolled out by all major international carriers. IndiGo and SpiceJet are also testing the same on their international routes.
Why is it important?
Free movement of people across borders without mandatory quarantines is critical to get the economic engine chugging. Countries whose economies rely on tourism can look forward to improved tourist flow if there can be international standards evolved on vaccine passports.
The WHO, in its July 2021 policy recommendation, had suggested that proof of vaccination not be required for movement. But on presenting such proof, nations could relax measures relating to testing and quarantine for such travellers. This can benefit travellers who are fully vaccinated two weeks prior by approved vaccines. Even in regional/domestic economies, non-travel related activities which rely on physical presence can restart, with such passports.
Why should I care?
India has expressed reservations over a vaccine passport system. Its concern is that low rates of inoculation achieved in developing countries will put travellers from these regions at a disadvantage. India is also concerned over passports being granted only to ‘approved’ vaccines. The European green pass for instance has proposed to be issued when a person has taken one of the four vaccines approved — BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca/Oxford and Johnson & Johnson. Individual member countries can still approve vaccines that have WHO’s emergency use authorization (EUA).
This offers room for Astra Zeneca’s Covishield to make it to the passport, but leaves out the significant proportion of Indians vaccinated with Covaxin, on which WHO’s EUA decision is pending. Even amongst European economies which have implemented the system, concerns that the passport system will creates a divide between vaccinated-passport holders and unvaccinated-reluctant populations are growing, as nations report that the young, the poor, and ethnic minorities are often excluded from vaccination drives.
The other concern that cuts across lines is the possibility of increased electronic surveillance of citizens using the largely digital format used for vaccine passports. A standardised system to quantify Covid-19 risk needed, but after balancing the views of all stakeholders.
World governments need to agree on a fair and inclusive way of assessing the infection risk an individual carries across borders.
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