How Can We Regulate Vaccinated Travelers, Without Deepening Global Disparity?

Gillian Sisley

“COVID Vaccine Passports” have been considered since the beginning of the pandemic. But are they really a good idea when prioritizing global equality?
Photo by ConvertKit on Unsplash

As national percentages of vaccinated first-world citizens are crossing the 50% threshold globally, travelers are jumping at the chance to book international vacations after over a year of global lockdown.

Spain has recently announced it’s opening its borders to international travel of vaccinated individuals on June 7th. Following this announcement, the US Transportation Security Administration reported that over 1.8 million people went through the US airport security checkpoints on May 23rd. That number is the highest American has seen since the pandemic began.

People are getting antsy, and are ready to travel ASAP. But what remains to be understood is how countries can globally guarantee safety despite reopening travel, while also working responsibly to not remove international opportunities from countries already struggling with accessing enough COVID vaccines?

What will these protocols look like, and how strict can travelers expect the conditions to be when traveling?

We’re entering a new world of international exploration — a great privilege that comes with great responsibility.

I’ve been keeping a close eye on COVID travel updates, and all theories related to the COVID-19 passport concept, as I’ve been planning a year of travel with my husband for over 5 years. Our original plan was to embark in the summer of 2022, but we’ve pushed our date to January 2023, just to allow the world to settle down a bit and figure out protocols for international travel.

Attention and manpower worldwide are currently being placed on the effort of vaccinating as many citizens as possible, and so there hasn’t been too much official mandate or energy put towards figuring out how we as a global community will keep this deadly disease contained when international borders fully open and the world is traveling regularly again.

As it stands, there is no global standard for vaccination proof. There is no global vaccination card, and proof of vaccine is currently a card provided by the vaccine distributor that theoretically can be scribbled on by anyone — allowing for the easy possibility of vaccination cards being forged, lost, or damaged during travel.

Forging of vaccination cards is one of the bigger concerns with the current vaccination proof system, in particular among the anti-vax community who refuses to get the vaccine, but also feels entitled to travel restriction-free in the name of freedom and self-enjoyment, with little to no regard for the safety and health of others.

Using current vaccination cards as proof makes it all too easy for forgeries to take place, and after a year of shutting down our entire world for over a year, that is just not a risk we can be willing to take.

That, or we’re depending on a trust system of travelers confirming they are indeed vaccinated, which is an even less effective strategy. As director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at Harvard University, Leonard Marcus, points out to NPR,

“We’re basically counting on trust, when the [US] is facing a trust deficit. So there’s no way to verify that someone is, in fact, actually vaccinated; it’s only their word that, yes, I’m vaccinated.”

How will the world track vaccination data in a cohesive and secure way, without increasing global inequity?

Using the US as an example, as things stand, there is currently no federal database for tracking who and has not been vaccinated. President Biden has also announced that his administration will not be issuing any sort of “vaccine passport” in the future.

That leaves us as prospective travelers to wonder, “How can we travel safely if we don’t have a valid proof of vaccination?

In a recent poll on Gallop, 57% of Americans stated they were in favor of requiring some sort of proof that travelers have been vaccinated before crossing international borders.

While I am Canadian, I too am in favor of having some sort of global vaccination passport or proof to ensure the safety and security of international travel. This is a deadly disease, and we have to be taking it seriously.

That said, I am not in favor of any global procedure that works to further add to the racial and socioeconomic inequity that already exists in the world.

Very valid concerns have been raised in regards to an increase in global inequality in the face of vaccine passports. Even before COVID-19, global health suffered major disparity between high and low-income countries.

Quality healthcare, access to vaccines, and requiring a vaccine visa or passport are all realities of great privilege, and for those who already struggle in areas of health and access to proper care, this inequality would only grow with the addition of a necessary visa or passport to prove one’s vaccination status.

To highlight this, journalist Maryn McKenna stated the following in her Wired article:

“The arrival of vaccine passports could let affluent societies reach the far side of the pandemic while poor ones are still waiting to be protected from it, reinforcing the economic divides that the pandemic made so evident.”

The question moving into 2022 will be:

How can we ensure the safety of travelers globally, without increasing an already crippling global disparity between the wealthy and the poor?

We have no answer to this quite yet, but certainly need to keep such a question in mind as these processes become developed.

Traveling safely in a post-COVID world must be a global effort to make it even remotely fair.

The global response to a COVID vaccine passport is better received than statistics from the US, with 3/4 of adults across 28 countries agreeing that they think a COVID-19 vaccine passport should be required for travelers to enter their country.

In this poll from Ipsos, conducted on behalf of the World Economic Forum, 2/3 of those same pollers felt that access to large public spaces within their countries should require the same documentation.

While the states have no plans moving forward to have this sort of vaccine passport in place, with some citizens saying it is a violation of American freedom to have health information be stored in any database related to COVID-19, other first-world countries have a different idea.

The European Union, United Kingdom, Japan, and China have stated that they are all working on their own sort of digital vaccination certificates required for international travel. We can’t be sure what this will look like yet, but it’s safe to say that it won’t be a cohesive document across the board.

The World Health Organization is also working on creating “Smart Vaccination Certificates”, but is advising countries to not require vaccine passports, citing unequal global distribution of vaccines to be the cause of their warning.

The goals of the Smart Vaccination Certificate by WHO include:

  1. Achieve consensus on common standards and governance for security, authentication, privacy, and data exchange;
  2. Strategically align efforts and collaboration to manage lessons learned and commonalities;
  3. Establish guidance for member states to facilitate informed adoption; and
  4. Foster shared and trusted global vaccine certificate architecture with digital solutions that support the COVID-19 vaccine use case and establish foundational services for other health services.

As it stands, I’m hoping that as a global effort we can establish trust in an architecture or system created by a global organization like WHO. This sort of governing body would take into account many of the concerns related to inequity or worsening the disparity between wealthy and poorer countries, who have not had equal access to vaccines or healthcare.

We will have to see how things unfold, but as a global citizen myself, I would like to see a system in place that keeps all people accountable if they have chosen to not get the COVID vaccine and still expect to travel freely, while also not condemning those who want the vaccine, but have not been able to access it due to socioeconomic or geographic realities.

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