Proposed COVID-19 'Vaccine Passports' Raise Ethical, Discrimination Fears
Governments across the globe are weighing up whether so-called COVID-19 vaccine passports can help bring an end to lockdown measures, travel restrictions, and business closures, although experts told Sputnik their proposed creation raises a number of ethical and discrimination concerns, centered on race and privacy
MOSCOW (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 26th February, 2021) Governments across the globe are weighing up whether so-called COVID-19 vaccine passports can help bring an end to lockdown measures, travel restrictions, and business closures, although experts told Sputnik their proposed creation raises a number of ethical and discrimination concerns, centered on race and privacy.
Iceland became the first European country to begin issuing digital vaccine certificates this past January, allowing residents who have received two vaccine doses to be exempt from entering mandatory quarantine upon their arrival from abroad.
The Greek government began issuing digital vaccine certificates earlier this week, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after a virtual EU summit on Thursday that the bloc's member states agreed on the need to create an online certification system before the upcoming summer.
COVID-19 vaccine passports were initially proposed for the purpose of facilitating international travel, but a growing number of countries are considering if they can be used for domestic purposes. Earlier this week, the Israeli government launched so-called green passports, which give vaccinated individuals access to gyms, hotels, cinemas, and synagogues.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while unveiling his roadmap for lifting England's current nationwide lockdown measures on Monday, told a press briefing that the government would review the domestic use of vaccine passports.
"On the question of what is the role of something like a certification of vaccination within the domestic UK economy, there are clearly some quite complex issues, some ethical issues, issues about discrimination, and to what extent can government either compel or indeed forbid the use of such certification. All that needs to be gone into so we're going to have a review of the whole issue," Johnson said.
As more governments mull the introduction of immunization certification, growing disparities have emerged in vaccine uptake among different ethnic groups, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States.
According to an analysis conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the vaccination rate among white people in 26 US states is three times higher than the rate for Hispanic people and twice as high as the rate for Black people.
In the United Kingdom, data compiled by the OpenSafely portal suggests that as of February 11, 86 percent of white people aged between 70 and 79 in the United Kingdom had received a COVID-19 vaccine shot, compared to 55 percent of black people the same age and 73 percent of South Asian people the same age.
Ethnic minorities in both countries have also had disproportionately high mortality rates from COVID-19. A February study conducted by the Office of National Statistics and researchers from several UK universities revealed that the COVID-19 mortality rate for black men of African descent in the UK was 4.49 times higher than the rate for white men during the first wave of the pandemic. The mortality rate for men of Pakistani descent was 4.81 times higher.
The US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control reports that, when adjusted for age, black US residents are 2.9 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than white US residents, and die at 1.9 times the rate of their white counterparts.
Given these disparities, fears have emerged that the rollout of vaccine passports may restrict certain groups of people from participating in public life. Commentators have also noted that the use of immunization certificates could pose a threat to the privacy of citizens.
CREATION OF INTERNATIONALLY-RECOGNIZED SYSTEM
During his Monday press briefing, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that COVID-19 vaccine certificates could be used for international travel in the same way Yellow Card certificates are issued to prove that the holder has been vaccinated against yellow fever.
According to Sharona Hoffman, the Edgar A. Hahn professor of law at Case Western Reserve University in the United States, health officials were likely to use existing vaccination certification systems, such as Yellow Cards, as the model for COVID-19 vaccine passports.
"I'm sure they are going to look to existing models that have worked well, maybe need to be tweaked a little bit, but that is a decent one," Hoffman told Sputnik.
Tim Mackey, principal security strategist at the Synopsys Cybersecurity Research Center, said that it was difficult to imagine that the Yellow Card model could be replicated to cover COVID-19 vaccinations.
"Considering the Yellow Card is itself a paper document signed by a medical professional who supervised the actual vaccination, that model would be difficult to replicate given the scale of COVID-19 vaccination requirements - and that's before we get to the potential security implications," Mackey said in a statement obtained by Sputnik.
Mackey said that software developers and governments would have to show a high level of cooperation to ensure that any health information stored in the cloud would be safe from the grasp of hackers, warning that any mishaps could significantly reduce users' confidence in the system and digital health certificates in general.
"Significant coordination between international entities is required to ensure that the data recorded by the app is correct and complete .
.. mis-steps along this path could easily tarnish the reputation of digital health passports and form a setback to the return to a pre-COVID-19 travel experience," the Synopsys Cybersecurity Research Center strategist said.
POTENTIAL DISCRIMINATORY CONSEQUENCES
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have both made public comments in support of vaccine passports despite the mounting concerns that their introduction would exclude those who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 from public life.
Francis Hoar, a barrister at the London-based Field Court Chambers, told Sputnik that vaccine passports were inherently discriminatory, adding that individuals had the legal right to choose which medicines or vaccinations to take.
"They are undoubtedly discriminatory, both in the wider sense that they discriminate against anyone who has chosen not to take a particular form of medication and in the sense that they would discriminate indirectly against groups with protected characteristics," Hoar said.
Individuals who are denied services because they are unable to produce a COVID-19 vaccination certificate could potentially pursue a civil suit for indirect discrimination under the UK's Equality Act of 2010, the barrister said.
"Were businesses to be permitted to refuse services based on the health 'status' of an individual in one respect, there can be little comfort that this would not be extended to other areas of health. The requirement on a person to carry such a 'passport' - whether by law or because services would otherwise be closed to him - removes freedom as a precondition to social interaction and replaces it with a licence granted or removed by the state or its agents. Such a place is not a free society," Hoar remarked.
In the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently confirmed that employers had the legal right to demand that employees are vaccinated against COVID-19, and Case Western Reserve University's Sharona Hoffman said that the introduction of vaccine passports may be problematic if people are unable to access services due to cost or where they live.
"At least in the United States, where we don't have universal health care, there are issues of health care barriers, so in some rural areas or poorer areas, people might not actually be able to access vaccines, and if they can't get certain services because they don't have a vaccine certificate, that would be highly problematic," Hoffman said.
Commenting on the racial disparity in COVID-19 vaccine uptake, Hoffman cited the infamous Tuskegee syphilis trials, which were launched in 1932 and resulted in hundreds of African-American males with syphilis being deliberately untreated.
"There is a big problem of vaccine hesitancy, certainly in the US, especially among African-Americans. There's a history of abuses, the Tuskegee syphilis trial, and a long history of people with vaccine hesitancy," Hoffman remarked, adding that further education, training, and support measures were required to combat low vaccine uptake among certain communities.
The Case Western Reserve University academic added that vaccination certificates could play a role in allowing individuals to travel or visit entertainment venues as part of the easing of coronavirus-related restrictions.
PRIVACY CONCERNS FOR POST-PANDEMIC ERA�������
In order to combat the spread of COVID-19, governments across the world established contact tracing applications that log and track users' GPS data, and law enforcement officers have made sustained efforts to find and punish lockdown violators.
Big Brother Watch, a UK-based civil liberties organization, has said that "proportionate, lawful, and strictly temporary" restrictions should be enacted to protect public health during the pandemic, but according to barrister Francis Hoar, COVID-19 has prompted governments to make severe encroachments on citizens' right to privacy.
According to Professor Sharona Hoffman, the introduction of COVID-19 vaccine passports poses less of a threat to citizens' privacy than ongoing contact tracing procedures.
"You do have to worry if they are developing GPS techniques, to track where everybody is and who has a fever when, that will be used when there is not a public health emergency. Once you've developed the technology, it's available, so that's a little bit of a concern. But with these certificates, presumably, it will only say whether you've got a vaccine or not, and so that doesn't reveal that much about you," Hoffman remarked.
The World Health Organization, according to guidance published on February 5, does not support the creation of COVID-19 vaccine passports, noting that countries should focus on immunizing high-risk groups.
Despite this, countries across the world have shown a willingness to safely reopen their economies and borders after a year of closures, meaning that governments may look to launch vaccine passports over the coming months, in spite of the ethical issues.