The Next Big Controversy: Vaccine Passports

Carolyn V. Murray

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The global coronavirus pandemic has created extraordinary losses and hardships for millions of American citizens. It has also put us in the very unfamiliar position of being blocked from entering the vast majority of all other countries. It’s a travel ban that goes both ways – very few countries’ citizens are welcome to cross our borders at this time.

A few welcome mats are still out

Right now, there are over a dozen countries that have allowed Americans to enter (primarily in the Caribbean and in Eastern Europe), provided that travelers come with negative COVID tests and a willingness to quarantine for up to fourteen days. If you’re considering one of these spots for vacation, you can see the problem right away. Your vacation was only going to last for a week. Or two weeks. Fourteen days of quarantine is no one’s idea of a holiday.

But don’t even think about getting around these restrictions. Eighteen-year-old Skylar Mack is an American who learned this the hard way. On a recent trip to the Cayman Islands to watch her boyfriend in a jet ski competition, she decided to remove her wrist monitor, break quarantine, and watch him from the shore. What could go wrong?

Well, she could get caught and thrown into a local jail for thirty-two days. Yes. And she actually lucked out – her original sentence was for four months. In her interviews after leaving prison and arriving back home, she showed a refreshing awareness of the gravity of her actions. People could have gotten sick from what she did. People could have died. Does that sound unlikely?

The case of Georgia – the country, not the state

In July 2020, Georgia’s COVID-19 rates were enviably low. On July 5, only three cases were diagnosed in the entire country, and there was a 7-day average of four cases per day. Flash forward five months to December 5. The number of cases for that day was 5,450 and the 7- day average was 4,316 a day. What happened?

In an attempt to safely open up their country and bolster their economy, Georgia’s government decided to create a digital nomad visa, that allowed citizens of ninety-five countries who could work remotely, to be allowed a six-month visa to stay and work in the country.

Georgia joined a group of about a dozen other countries in creating this special visa. It seemed to offer a promising way to replace money lost from tourism. As long-term residents, the digital nomads would easily be able to start their residences with a fourteen-day quarantine. Again, what could go wrong?

Well, an increase from three cases in one day to 5,450 cases in a single day. Quarantine is a very useful strategy but it’s far from infallible. Opening their borders to foreign guests also opened the country up to an explosion of COVID-19 cases.

With this as a cautionary tale, can we blame any country for considering the requirement of COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of entry?

Which way is Europe leaning?

First of all, the economies of almost all European countries have been hit hard. They want their businesses open. They want their tourists back. And being extremely fond of travel, they also want to reclaim the freedom they once enjoyed to bounce back and forth between EU countries without so much as having to crack open a passport.

But not at the expense of their national well-being. Ireland is a prime example of a country that decided to remain open to Americans, provided they satisfied all the safety protocols, which included a quarantine on entering the country.

But the reality is that a huge number of travelers agreed to those quarantine regulations with absolutely no intention of complying with them. Dozens of Irish businesses have been complaining about American customers who they’ve had to turn away once it became clear that the visitors were flagrantly violating their quarantines.

It’s not easy to turn down business. Americans account for 28% of foreign spending for both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, taken together.

On the other hand, tourist dollars may just be the sacrifice that COVID-battered countries are now willing to make. Ireland has learned the hard way about lowering its guard against this virus. In late November, after their second full national shutdown, they had the second-lowest COVID-19 rates in all of Europe.

Their government made a decision to relax restrictions so that citizens could enjoy a sociable holiday season. Restaurants and food pubs were allowed to open. Visiting between households and long-distance travel was allowed to resume. It was the wrong decision. Five weeks later, Ireland had the highest COVID-19 rates in the world.

Five weeks was all it took.

The WHO versus the transport industry

Vaccines passports were never going to arrive without controversy. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) wants to issue a vaccination certification as a requirement for entry into all EU countries. Several governments are on board with this plan, including Greece, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Iceland.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) sees a multitude of liabilities with these passports. One is that it’s going to be a long time before everyone who wants and needs to travel is going to be able to have access to vaccination. Secondly, we don’t know definitively whether or not a vaccinated individual who is protected from getting ill might still be able to transmit the virus to someone who is unvaccinated.

Also, there is the problem of global inequality and vaccine access. Will the vaccines be taken up for the vacation plans of wealthier global citizens while seniors and vulnerable populations in poorer countries are unable to get their doses?

In the near future

Testing, quarantines, travel bans, and border closures will continue. It will be a rough and deadly winter for dozens of countries around the world.

But we do like to hang onto hope for a brighter, safer future. For millions of people, that includes the freedom to one day, again be able to go wherever they want to go. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anything to indicate that brighter future is going to happen before the fall of 2021 – certainly not travel-wise.

One bit of useful news for Americans is that neither of our neighbors - Canada with its still-closed borders, and Mexico with its still-open borders - has shown any signs of adopting vaccine requirements for entry.

Will this matter for you?

At this point, you’ve probably made a decision about whether or not you’re going to get vaccinated. If you’re a U.S. citizen, the government is not going to force you to get the vaccine. (Your employer is a whole different matter.) But if you intend to set foot outside the U.S. for business or pleasure, for a quick weekend, or for a long stint of remote work, then you need to be aware of these trends.

Governments around the world are determined to get to the light at the end of the COVID tunnel as quickly as possible. Right now, that often means keeping Americans out. It will almost always involve multiple testing for incoming travelers. Quarantines are problematically dependent on the honor system, as the Irish have discovered. They and other countries are going to be looking for the most foolproof ways way to safeguard the well-being of their own citizens.

If you weren’t planning on venturing beyond North America, this probably won’t affect you. But for those who are dreaming of the day when travel bans are lifted and they can finally book that trip to Vienna. Or Florence. Or Madrid. Or Singapore. Or Sydney. Yeah…vaccine passports. They are definitely going to become a thing.

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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