Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Say No to Vaccine Passports

Whether imposed by government or the private sector, vaccine passports must be resisted.

This is the debut piece in a new series from TAC, “Taking the Mask Off.” For more about the series, click here.

On August 10, former White House coronavirus task force senior advisor Andy Slavitt tweeted something snarky, as is his habit: “If people who go out and buy fake vaccine cards get COVID, do they expect someone to put them on a real ventilator?” One of his Twitter followers replied, “We need a way to track vaccination that isn’t on a little handwritten paper card. Something that’s very hard to falsify. You have ideas, contacts, resources I bet… Make it HAPPEN, Andy.” He responded, “Hold on for 3 ½ weeks and you will see.” That was two and a half weeks ago.

Right now, the vaccine passport system is a patchwork, with multiple official and unofficial apps. New York State and New York City each have different apps, Excelsior Pass and NYC Covid Safe. Fraud is easy in some apps; others check your claim to be vaccinated against state health records. Many people avoid apps entirely and just take a photo of their vaccination card with their smartphone or carry around a hard copy. A standardized vaccine passport app would clear up these logistical snags. It would be the green light that prompts cities and private businesses currently considering vaccine mandates to start imposing them.

The Biden administration has said repeatedly that there will not be a national vaccine mandate or a national vaccine database. Jen Psaki said in March that “development of a vaccine passport, or whatever you want to call it, will be driven by the private sector.”

Even a private sector vaccine passport should be resisted by every possible means. It is the first step on a slippery slope to a social credit system, and the only time it can be stopped is at the very beginning.

A vaccine passport system would mean, in practice, scanning a QR code any time you enter a place where proof of vaccination is required—restaurants, coffee shops, universities, concert venues, office buildings. Ideally there would also be some way of verifying that the person listed on the passport is the same person who is presenting the QR code. Right now, for example, New York City’s vaccine mandate for restaurants requires patrons present both a vaccine passport and matching ID.

There are very few places where scanning a QR code every time you enter a building is standard protocol. One of them is Xinjiang. Another is Sydney, Australia. The state of New South Wales earlier this year mandated that QR codes be posted at the entrance of every workplace, retail store, restaurant, church, hotel, salon, hospital, pub, and movie theater, plus taxis and Ubers as well as large outdoor gatherings such as weddings and funerals. Everyone coming in must scan the QR code (or sign in manually if they don’t have a smartphone); scanning again to check out is encouraged but not required. Police and private security guards have been posted at grocery store entrances to make sure the mandate is enforced. Fines are up to $5,000 for businesses and $1,000 for patrons.

Right now this system is used for contact tracing. Probably it will soon shift seamlessly into a vaccine passport. Premier Gladys Berejiklian last week teased the idea of adding vaccination status to the same official state app that manages QR code check-ins, making it an “all in one” app. This was part of her announcement that vaccinated Sydneysiders would soon be permitted “additional freedoms,” such as an extra hour of outdoor exercise.

This system of rewards and penalties is reminiscent of the Chinese social credit system, which, according to second-hand reports I have heard, some Australian bureaucrats explicitly cite in private as a model for their country to follow.

What people call China’s “social credit system” is a patchwork, too. There are the official government blacklists targeting fraud, nonpayment of debts, traffic violations, and other antisocial behavior. These are mostly regional, though it is expected that these local pilot programs will be knitted into a single national system eventually. Penalties include being banned from air or train travel or having your children excluded from elite schools.

More intrusive and less subject to rule-of-law protections are the social credit systems of private companies like Alibaba and WeChat. These take into account social media behavior, purchase history (don’t buy too many video games!), and even friendship networks. Spend too much time around people with low Sesame Credit scores and Alipay will lower your score, too. Rewards and penalties are confined to each company’s ecosystem—at least for now; the private systems are also expected to be integrated into a national social credit system eventually—but since apps like WeChat manage everything from users’ messaging to banking, government services, and health care, their power to manipulate incentives might be even greater than the government’s.

The most important thing to understand about China’s social credit system is that it is popular. A 2018 poll by the Free University of Berlin found that 80 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the social credit system, with wealthier and more educated users the most in favor.

It’s easy to imagine a vaccine passport system in the United States morphing into something similar to the Chinese model—and being equally popular among the wealthy and educated—especially if at first it was confined to coronavirus-specific measures. Get caught taking your mask off indoors? That’s a two-week hold on your restaurant privileges. Your church had more than the permitted number of unmasked singers? That church is restricted to video streaming services for the next three months.

There are plenty of people who would consider such measures dystopian but who have no problem with a bare-bones vaccine passport. What those people have to understand is this: Once Americans get used to scanning a QR code every time they go into a building, there is no way to arrest that trajectory at the specific point you prefer. We have seen how easily decision-makers are captured by the most deranged Covid hawks. The same forces that just led to an outdoor mask mandate in Oregon, in the face of all scientific evidence, will be brought to bear on any vaccine passport. It will be a never-ending ratchet.

At the start of the pandemic, on May 11, 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington announced that to reopen for indoor dining restaurants would be required to keep a record of the names and contact details of every person who came in, for purposes of contact tracing. That was a Monday. By Friday, he had retracted the rule in the face of mass outrage. People didn’t like the idea of it being a matter of record who they had dinner with.

Politicians and bureaucrats are vulnerable to this kind of pushback. If uptake of the passport app is low, or if enough people turn around and walk out the door every time their local coffee shop asks to see their QR code, then after a month or two the app’s supporters will be forced to backtrack just as Inslee did. But there is a limited window of time when this kind of protest can make a difference.

People like Andy Slavitt are betting most Americans will say, “Oh, well, as long as it’s the private business’s decision,” or “I guess it’s fine if it helps us get back to normal.” Even opponents might download the app grudgingly, hoping it will be temporary, just to put an end to mask mandates and other annoyances. People are more exhausted and desperate now than they were when Inslee floated his trial balloon.

If a gold-standard vaccine passport app is indeed imminent, then people should start thinking a step ahead. If the eventual result of a social credit system sounds dystopian to you, then now is the time to resist. If we’ve learned anything from Covid, it’s that restrictions tend to stick around once they’re imposed and the promised “back to normal” is always just around the corner.