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Vaccine Passports Again

July 7, 2021 

I was in a debate this morning with someone who pitched vaccine passports as a way to open up the freedoms we’ve all been missing, right down to “hugging your kids again.” Those arguments, certainly deliberately, strike an emotional chord. 

However, emotional manipulation is insufficient to convince me that vaccine passports are worth the risk. Because I live in a mature democracy where I expect freedom, and want my fellow residents to have freedoms too, I firmly resist a “show your papers to prove you’re one of us” society. I don’t want to live in a place where freedoms get trampled, bit by bit, in the name of common good until the deprivation becomes the new norm.  

There is a way, of course, to analyze how we should land when rights and freedoms collide. We can look at the necessity of the action that impinges on rights compared to its proportionality; in this kind of analysis we ask, is the invasion minimal? If we accept the invasion, will it achieve the goal claimed for it? Is it, in balance, creating less harm than benefit? 

So, let’s ditch the ungrounded rhetoric suggesting that all the things we desperately miss (shopping! haircuts! sports and theatre!)  require some kind of magic key to access and look at vaccine passports analytically.  Will that piece of paper or app genuinely make me safer when I want to hug my children? 

Here in Canada, the most recent poll I’ve seen on the topic, issued mid-June, says we have 90% of people saying they want to be vaccinated. As of July 6, we have almost 77% of eligible people age 12+ with one shot. What’s creating that 13% gap?  I haven’t seen good data on this. To some extent, it may still simply be a question of vaccine supply. I don’t know what the wait times are in provinces and territories for a vaccination appointment. My personal experience with Ontario’s vaccination booking system wasn’t entirely positive, but I don’t know how other provinces and territories are managing that process or how smoothly the process of appointment booking is going.  I don’t know how many of that 13% are housebound, or otherwise having trouble accessing a clinic within a reasonable distance of their home. I don’t know how many are having trouble getting paid time off (or any time off) to get the shot, or a paid sick day to wait out the side effects that many get the next day. But that’s the kind of data we need, before we can make an informed decision regarding whether a vaccine passport might incentivize those people to move ahead with vaccination or whether what they really need are better supports to book and get to an appointment. 

Then we have the 10% who say they won’t be vaccinated. A small percentage of those simply can’t get the shot because of pre-existing medical conditions. A similarly small percentage may have sincerely held religious beliefs that they feel prohibit them from being vaccinated. It’s fairly certain that some portions of the rest are misinformed or have reason to distrust medical authorities.  What will a vaccine passport do for that group?  Will a state intervention to mandate a vaccine passport encourage their compliance, or will it further entrench their resistance? Has that research been done here in Canada in this context? Can we learn from other jurisdictions? Is it possible that some subsection of the misinformed may respond to carefully targeted, respectful intervention by a trusted member of their community, by their family doctor perhaps, or a faith leader for example? Would resources be better directed to support those individuals—say, by making sure family doctors have access to a supply of vaccine to administer, or to let emergency room docs who have just had an educational conversation with an unvaccinated person offer the jab?  

All these questions, of course, are predicated on the assumption that the purpose of a vaccine passport would be to encourage vaccination (without tipping over into coercion, which is an extremely fine line). There’s another alternative, which is that the drive for such passports is economic rather than health focused. That drive stems from a belief that people need to feel safe in order to resume their lives as they were pre-pandemic, eating in restaurants, shopping in stores, riding the bus. In that model, a vaccine passport is a kind of security blanket—look, we’re verifying everyone’s vaccination status and that should make you feel better about spending your money here. And maybe a side dose of, look, we’ve checked vaccination status and done our due diligence, so if you happen to get sick while you’re here, it’s not our fault, you can’t sue us. 

The questions stemming from that assumption fall into two categories—is it true that people won’t resume their lives without such reassurance, and is the trade off—giving up health privacy, risking discriminatory impacts—one we want or need to make?  On the first front, every time we’ve re-opened, just a little, people have shown themselves over-eager to resume life. Remember when malls opened in Ontario and the premier felt compelled to comment shortly after, paraphrasing very loosely, ‘we opened them, but we didn’t want you all to go right away’? This is anecdotal of course, but data could and should be collected and analyzed to look at behaviours subsequent to loosening of limits and the impact on economic recovery. There’s no sense in dualling opinions—people will participate in life vs. they won’t without some safety net—we need to be guided in this by reason and data, not fear and assumptions. It’s impossible to properly assess the second question about whether we need or want to risk human rights in this most recent covid-driven social experiment without answers to the first. 

Are vaccine passports a viable solution to a safe re-opening, and if so, are they a solution to problems we actually have, here in Canada, right now? We haven’t answered these questions properly (or, arguably, at all). We are skipping over them in a rush to do something, anything, to make life feel normal and safe again. The vaccine passport conversation cannot—must not—be reduced to “we need a vaccine passport to get back to normal” before we grapple with “is a vaccine passport sound and necessary public health policy.” Then, of course, “can it be implemented with respect for human rights, without coercive impacts and without furthering discrimination or irreparably harming health privacy?”  We need to make evidence-informed decisions grounded in the values and rights we cherish and deserve. We have all given up so much fighting this pandemic. Let’s make sure we come out the other side, living in a country we recognize as our rights-respecting home. 

Brenda McPhail, CCLA Director of Privacy, Technology & Surveillance Program

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