Washington Whispers: Are Vaccine “Passports” the Next Big Thing?
By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
The GOP is busy ginning up another phony issue, calling vaccine certifications “passports,” and claiming they are the gateway to a police state. But what could be more useful than having proof that you have been vaccinated? The Biden Administration and private industry are both investigating ways to allow people to obtain certificates showing just that. The purpose is to give the business community and the public it serves greater confidence that they can move forward safely as the economy opens up.
The concept of certifying that a person has been vaccinated is not new. The World Health Organization's International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis acts as proof of vaccination for Americans who travel to parts of the world where there are diseases like yellow fever or polio. Proof of negative TB tests has been required by some colleges and professions involving health care. And children are generally required to have certain vaccinations before entering school.
But some public relations genius decided to dub certification of Covid-19 vaccination a “vaccine passport.” This terminology has the “papers, please” flavor of old totalitarian regimes, and so has created an opening for right-wing politicians to attack it. (The PR use of the term “passport” apparently did not originate with Administration officials, who favor referring to it as “vaccine verification.”)
QAnon’s favorite, Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, labeled the so-called vaccine passport Biden’s “Mark of the Beast.”
Republican Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan has tweeted that the Biden Administration is considering a vaccine passport for Americans, “but doesn’t seem to care about passports when it comes to illegal migrants crossing the southern border.”
Florida’s GOP Governor Ron DeSantis said, "It's completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society.” DeSantis plans to issue an executive order forbidding businesses from requiring vaccine passports in Florida.
Newsmax’s conspiracy-minded correspondent Emerald Robinson has suggested that the misnamed “vaccine passport” is the introduction of a totalitarian communist surveillance system. Robinson has conveniently forgotten that the George W. Bush Administration instituted the Real ID, requiring people to obtain national identification cards or driver’s licenses with an ID chip, the same type of chip now embedded in every credit card.
In reality, the White House is loath to make vaccine verification a governmental mandate. Rather, according to the Washington Post, the Biden Administration has identified some 17 certification initiatives currently being developed by private industry. The most prominent among these evolving certification systems are Travel Pass, a mobile application developed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and Excelsior Pass, IBM’s digital health pass.
IATA’s Travel Pass allows travelers to store their verified certifications for Covid tests or vaccinations on their cell phones. Its technology is decentralized, meaning that the data is stored only on the passenger’s phone, not in any central database. So far, some 17 airlines have signed up to try IATA’s Travel Pass.
IBM’s Excelsior Pass was devised for use at such venues as a workplace, school, stadium or airline flight. IBM says that the Excelsior Pass is “designed to enable organizations to verify health credentials for employees, customers and visitors entering their site based on criteria specified by the organization." New York City’s Madison Square Garden has already implemented the Excelsior Pass as a way to satisfy state testing and vaccination requirements for those attending its events.
Because there is no one agreed upon standard for certificates, or for a computerized application to display them, business interests are concerned that people might need to use different apps for different venues. They also worry that what counts as an acceptable test or vaccine certification for one state or country might not count in another—with none of them being universally accepted. This could create chaos, especially for the travel industry. As a result, airline and business groups have been lobbying the Biden Administration to set some uniform standards for vaccine certificates.
Accordingly, in January, President Biden issued an executive order directing agencies to assess the feasibility of linking coronavirus vaccinations to vaccine cards, also know as “international certificates of vaccination or prophylaxis,” and producing a digital version.
The Administration’s coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients, has said that the Administration’s role “is to help ensure that any solutions…. should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy.” In response to questions from North Carolina Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, Zients also explained, “We’re not going to have any federally mandated, universal vaccine credential, and there will not be a federal database.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki also emphasized this message, stating that the Administration’s effort will be “focused on guidelines” and that there are no plans for any federal requirement that all citizens have a vaccination credential.”
While the right-wing brouhaha over “vaccine passports” is an attempt to create yet another political strawman to attack, there are serious, legitimate concerns about Covid vaccination verification. Among them are not only the problem of standardizing certificates, but protecting privacy, keeping data secure from forgery, preventing fraud, and making sure that low-income populations and others who may not have access to digital capabilities like smart phones still have access to certification.
Over time, there will have to be adjustments to take into account the potential spread of Covid variants, how long immunity lasts, and the tracking of booster shots.
Accommodations will also be necessary to prevent discrimination against people who, for health reasons, have not or cannot be vaccinated, and therefore will not be able to obtain certificates.
Finally, it is not unreasonable to have some hesitation about the possible impact of governmental and corporate data collection on privacy and civil liberties. But if one has participated in daily life during the last decades—owning a smart phone, posting on Facebook or Twitter, ordering products online—that concern comes a little late. Compared to the data that can be mined from those Internet entities, the fact that one has been vaccinated against Covid seems very minor. Furthermore, obtaining a certificate that one has been vaccinated (or has had a negative test or recovered from the virus and so has immunity) is entirely voluntary. No one will be required to do it. But for anyone who has embraced vaccinations, having proof of that fact would be a boon.
As vaccination verification fully develops, all of these concerns must be addressed. But we now have an Administration that is demonstrating its thoughtfulness in considering them. That should give us some confidence that we can keep America safe and well without infringing on privacy or civil liberties.
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.