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The Chilling Return of ‘Papers Please’

So-called immunity passports would bring back the worst civil liberties abuses of the past and result in a crime wave.
Police check papers

The coronavirus lockdown drags on, yet only a few fringe fanatics (and France, but I repeat myself) support continuing complete shutdowns of the world’s economies. However, even those countries that have opted to end forced quarantines still present a range of worrying responses. One of these ongoing debates surrounds the so-called “Corona apps,” with which authorities intend to track and trace the movements of their own citizens. In Poland, the government is mandating that those infected with COVID-19 install an app and use it to send a selfie on a regular basis. If they do not comply, they face a visit from the law enforcement.

The nightmarish infringements on civil liberties are set to continue with “immunity passports.” The German Robert Koch Institute, along with other researchers and blood donation services, is working on a large-scale study to establish immunity in COVID-19 patients. Those found to have built immunity, either because they’ve already had the disease or through antibody testing, could be issued paperwork that exempts them from lockdown restrictions.

CNN’s medical analyst Saju Mathew counts himself as convinced by the concept, and quotes a noted beacon of human freedom to back it up: “In China, for example, QR codes have been used to loosen restrictions in Wuhan, where the pandemic originated. People assessed to be healthy have been given a green QR code, indicating they can travel within the province.”

From a law enforcement level, the existence of immunity passports would extend indefinitely the practice of questioning citizens without reasonable suspicion at any time. “Papers please” wouldn’t be experienced only because one is crossing a border, but merely because one is outside. If you were worried about rogue police abusing power before, wait until stop and frisk becomes the norm all across the United States, at any time of the day. 

In the United Kingdom, Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the government’s new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group, told The Guardian that “people granted the passports would have to be kept under close observation to ensure they were not becoming reinfected.” In practice, this would amount to daily identification checkpoints and mandatory home visits. Any pretense of individual liberty and fundamental rights would go out the window.

But beyond that, on a more practical level, the measure would be inoperable. In a scientific brief published at the end of April, the World Health Organization (WHO)—known to be warm on authoritarian measures such as those used by China—preliminarily rejected the idea of these passports. Current antibody tests, the WHO warned, could confuse immunity with one of the six existing coronaviruses, four of which cause the common cold. The WHO also noted that such paperwork would give citizens the impression that they do not need to abide by social distancing guidelines, giving them a false sense of security. Professor Openshaw adds that immunity passports would incentivize people to try and deliberately catch coronavirus, which could end up overwhelming the health sector, exactly the scenario that the lockdowns are meant to prevent.

There’s also a massive opportunity for crime under such a proposal. In 2015, 50 million travel documents were either lost or stolen. In 2014, the UK recorded a five-year high of counterfeit passport seizures. Fake passports fuel organized crime and have long been available on the black market. Immunity passports would be far more valuable, since they would grant not just the ability to go to other countries, but other basic freedoms of movement, going into shops or meeting friends. The idea that people would pay a pretty price for their freedom would be an understatement. In turn, the government could only react to such a flood of false documentation by becoming more authoritarian, casting us into yet another spiral of increasing state control.

There is no instance in which the systematic control of citizens has not ended in police abuse, or plain and simple authoritarianism. There is a genuine fear about the coronavirus. That said, we cannot allow such fear to rid us completely of our fundamental rights. States of emergency were and are designed to be temporary, and in that, to be short. 

If the debate is over whether to radically overturn the Bill of Rights and human rights conventions, then let us have that debate. Let us talk about rewriting the rules, instead of just plain ignoring them.

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