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Americans Should Reject Vaccine Passports

The issue delineates those who believe in essential liberties and those who do not.

“Conservative politicians have turned ‘vaccine passports’ into a cultural flashpoint,” writes the New York Times in an effort to polarize the debate and frame it as a left vs. right conversation. Why exactly one would put “vaccine passport” in quotation marks is a mystery in the first place, as both words accurately describe the concept. If you’ll need to be vaccinated to travel, and this piece of paper or app is required to board, then it’s a passport.

The reframing of the debate is already completed in Europe, where E.U. leaders have coined it the “Digital Green Certificate,” because it is never fully European unless you slip the color green in somehow. In a 44-page regulation, Brussels lays out the ground rules for the new system. A paper or digital copy of the DGC will be needed to travel within the European Union, despite the Schengen Agreement (which promises that you can cross borders without any checks). On top of that, the vaccine passport can be used freely by E.U. member states to check entries to bars or restaurants, concert halls, public buildings…the options are countless. 

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, some are playing with the idea of using facial recognition software to use their own version of a vaccine passport, which is set to be introduced before the summer. With stringent rules already in place or under discussion in other parts of the world, it is comforting to see that, for now, the United States has ruled out their use. That said, the story does not end there.

While most Americans do not actually carry a passport, already having a large country with many options to both ski or tan, some Americans do travel abroad. They are likely to be asked to provide certification of their vaccination or any of the substitutes guaranteed under the European certificate, namely a recent negative COVID-19 test result or a medical document certifying immunity through prior infection.

This means that the United States does need some form of authentication for vaccinations federally, or at least an instrument for vaccination records to carry a seal of authenticity. Adding to that, as private businesses engage in varying degrees of vaccination requirement to use their services, the federal government could soon feel compelled to ease businesses’ burden by harmonizing them all under one government system.

Why care in the first place? After all, doesn’t a vaccine passport solve the pandemic, as it ensures that possibly infected people do not mingle with those who are vulnerable? 

The fear needs to be this: If it is introduced, the vaccine passport is unlikely to be just a temporary measure. The COVID passport is likely to see the same evolution as today’s common travel passport. The existing travel passport only dates back to the early 20th century, at the early stages of World War I. Warring nations France, Germany, and Italy were the first to introduce passports in 1914 to keep better track of “enemy” citizens and their movements. 

Under the U.N.’s predecessor, the League of Nations, a passport conference was held in 1925 in an effort to remove these war-time restrictions and restore freedom of movement, but to no avail. Those who argued that seven years past the Great War’s end security concerns remained won the debate. Instead, the conference decided on uniformity by introducing an international passport standard that we still use today.

The illusion of a temporary passport is just that, an illusion. Not just because of the popular saying that nothing is as permanent as a temporary government measure, but also because there is increasing certainty that COVID-19 vaccinations will become recurring, notably because of mutations. In that case, passports once adopted will not just become a crisis measure but a permanent form of identification. This causes a number of problems.

The technology used to check a vaccine passport would soon become increasingly invasive and should scare any privacy advocate. Asking citizens to constantly be able to identify themselves, since if you show proof of vaccination, you’ll also need to show proof that you are the person who claims to have been vaccinated, removes their privacy. Suspicion of lack of vaccination could be added to reasons to stop a person in most social settings. A customer in a bar looks like he or she could be trouble? Double-checking on the vaccine passport gives a reason to ask for identification.

This applies to law enforcement as much as it does for private security in any setting or venue. As this is a potential law enforcement matter, you would imagine the left would be more vigilant. What better excuse for unjustified searches and police stops than a general medical suspicion? It has become a bizarre world, where carrying I.D. to vote seems to be an infringement of the highest order, while the risks of a vaccine passport go largely unnoticed.

In the words of the Times, it is a “cultural flashpoint.” It ought to be a flashpoint between those who believe in essential liberties and those who do not.

Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in NewsweekThe Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le MondeLe Figaro, and Die Welt.