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First among equals: The chase for vaccine passports

Dr Reem al-Shinawi

Published: Updated:

Healthcare is today, now a privilege, not a basic human right. The basis of the vaccine passport brings forth the idea that within every population there are groups that are first among equals.

Will adopting a vaccine passport strategy offer a comprehensive transport framework? Will holding one speed up the return to normal life?

From a bioethical point of view, on the back of the pandemic, inequality is becoming one of the biggest concerns, regardless if it's receiving the vaccine itself, getting tested, or having access to healthcare services.

Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.

We have seen wealthier individuals and countries create more disparities. Will a vaccine passport introduction facilitate luxury travel? It will certainly help the economies of countries where tourism is a vital sector.

Discrimination and profiling are issues that COVID-19 vaccine passports will create, if the inequality factor is not resolved. There are also privacy-related matters that creates other issues to work around, and resolve, if countries are to move forward with a vaccine passport system.

With so many known unknowns a vaccine passport strategy offers a degree of public mobility, but creates disharmony, and offers no guarantees of success.

We still don’t know what the full impact of the vaccines on transmission of the virus will be. Without knowing this, why is there a rush to adopt a passport concept at this point?

We need to track a wider spread of vaccine rollouts, garnering larger numbers of people inoculated, then do proper epidemiological studies before promoting the idea of a passport. Only by answering the scientific questions can we understand if the passport is the solution.

With so much still to understand about COVID-19, Dr al-Shinawi asks if it's the correct time to roll out vaccine passport frameworks. (File photo: Reuters)
With so much still to understand about COVID-19, Dr al-Shinawi asks if it's the correct time to roll out vaccine passport frameworks. (File photo: Reuters)

Regardless of the available data about the efficacy of all the vaccines on the market, we are yet to know if inoculated people can still be asymptomatic and transmit the disease.

It is still too early to implement vaccine passports when we are not near close to achieving our main goals, such as actually having enough doses to distribute equally. We still do not have robust data because we are facing only an initial understanding of the efficacy of the vaccines, and also their ability to target lots of virus mutations.

Everyone agrees, more or less, about how to fight the virus, and get through the pandemic. Governments, businesses and citizens debate what specific strategies to adopt to achieve this, but in short, herd immunity is a major goal, with gradual economic recovery essential too.

That means making money out of the pandemic should not be the main goal for humanity. Starting from the crazy prices of sanitizers we saw on day one, to today's vaccination prices.

The most important thing governments can do at this time, and before contemplating vaccine passports, is to regain the public’s trust, lost when a scattered approach to tackling the virus raged.

Only with a high level of transparency will the worldwide public understand the reasoning behind decisions, instead of authorities constantly changing strategies, causing confusion and distrust. The COVID-19 Infodemic is a threat that we need to fight. We cannot move forward with a barrage full of half-truths, rumors and innuendo.

This is a pandemic, not an epidemic. We need to visualize the world as a small village; what happens in China, affects America and the rest of the world.

Is it the proper time to explore the idea of introducing COVID-19 vaccine passports? Perhaps, but exploring is different to introducing a framework to roll it out.

At this stage of the pandemic, burdening people with the thought of not being able to get such passports when many do not have access to the vaccine itself, is wrong.

Investing more resources to build vaccine passport frameworks will stretch economies further, with the obvious impact of hindering the battle with coronavirus, on the front line. Too much innovation drains funding, and erodes trust. We need to set out priorities first, and concentrate our forces.

This massive pestilence is a wake-up call to review our morals and act upon them. Science alone cannot solve it. This virus will linger, and we need to embed our morals and ethics in every action and decision we make to overcome this.

We should aim to introduce a more affordable system of healthcare in all layers of society that tells the global population that there is no group that is first among equals.

Read more:

EU to propose digital COVID-19 vaccine passports in March in time for summer

China launches digital COVID-19 vaccine certificate for domestic travelers

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.