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Vaccine passports spark discrimination fears

By Tanya Lara Published Feb 18, 2021 3:47 am Updated Feb 18, 2021 7:57 am

We may soon need another kind of passport to travel—or just to have greater freedom of movement.

The issuance of vaccine passports is being deliberated in the Philippine Senate and other governments around the world as proof that an individual has been inoculated against COVID-19 and as a requirement for travel.

This could mean greater mobility for those who are vaccinated, and a restrictive measure for those who aren’t, if applied to domestic settings.

At the deliberations on Senate Bill No. 2057 on Feb. 17, some senators said the vaccine passport program implied discrimination.

Senator Koko Pimentel said, “I’m just worried that if we now establish a vaccine passport program and the word ‘passport’ actually connotes or affects mobility. If we are requiring a vaccine passport for the mobility of our people, are we not indirectly telling them or pressuring them that the COVID-19 vaccination is mandatory if you want to be a mobile person?”

We must be fair between vaccinated and non-vaccinated people.

Senate Bill 2057 or the Vaccination Program Act of 2021, filed on Feb. 16, seeks to expedite the procurement and administration of vaccines and to provide funds for it.

Pimentel pointed out the provision in the bill saying those who have “completed Covid-19 immunization may be granted certain benefits or exemptions” and said that “we must be fair between vaccinated and non-vaccinated people. This is my worry if we now give these benefits or exemptions.” 

In the Lower House, House Bill 8280 or the Vaccine Passport Act was introduced by Rep. Ronnie Ong on Dec. 17, 2020.

As leisure establishments inch towards full capacity, they may require patrons to have vaccine passports and prevent those that don’t from entering.

It lists the benefits of the vaccine passport holder as, but not limited, to: international and domestic travel including non-essential travel; employment abroad; local checkpoints and quarantine exemptions; opening of and access to some business establishments; and other post-vaccination protocols that will be determined by the IATF.

The feared discrimination is not just against travelers—despite their having a negative COVID test—but in domestic settings as well. As leisure establishments such as restaurants and bars inch towards full capacity, they may require patrons to have vaccine passports and prevent those that don’t from entering.

The Lower House version seeks to have the government provide a single internationally recognized vaccine passport, “whether or not the person availed of the free vaccination program of the government or was vaccinated through personal or other means.” And to recognize certificates issued by foreign countries to holders who wish to travel to the Philippines.

Vaccine passport in the Philippines is nothing new, but pre-COVID it was mostly used by travelers to enter foreign destinations. It is a yellow card you present to immigration authorities in countries that require visitors to be inoculated against certain diseases—like yellow fever for Ethiopia. The Bureau of Quarantine in Port Area, Manila issues that card and administers the vaccines at a cost significantly lower than in private clinics and hospitals.

Bangladesh, whose GDP is lower than the Philippines by P3.5 trillion, has already administered 1.36 million doses of vaccine.  From Our World in Data

Inoculation requirements may be temporary or permanent. In 2019, there was a sudden surge of demand for polio vaccine as the Philippines declared a polio outbreak in September.

This local outbreak—40 years after polio was wiped out in western countries in 1979—prompted several countries like the UAE and Indonesia to require proof of vaccination at ports of entry—or so the government and media reported. The truth is, when I traveled to Bali in October that year, no one asked me for my vaccination card. On the other hand, for the yellow fever inoculation for Ethiopia in 2016, the airline made sure I had it before I was allowed to check in.

Today is different, of course. The whole world is wrapped in COVID-19 and many see the vaccine passport as one way to restart economies. Others see it as discrimination against anti-vaxxers or simply those who haven’t been inoculated because of government ineptitude.

Global unease as debate rages on

Some countries are looking at digital vaccine passports. 

In Europe, the vaccine passport will be taken up at the EU level in the next European Council meeting. But VOA News reported that European governments “are split about whether to endorse a system of vaccine passports, but the travel, tourist and hospitality sectors are desperate to get business going again and say they can’t afford another lost summer.”

The European Union has administered a total of 22.5 million doses as of Feb. 16.

The system is already being discussed in Switzerland and Israel, while in France there has been a “more cautious reception,” according  to The Local Fr. 

Just as quarantine effectively halted the (aviation) industry, a universal requirement for vaccines could do the same.

The French government has opened up an online discussion to hear people’s opinions. In a tweet on Feb. 17, the government announced that “until March 7, @lecese collects your opinions on the #VaccinePassport. Take part in the debate.”

In Denmark, the vaccine passport is a go and will roll out in the next couple of months, while “Germany’s ethics council, an independent body that advises the government, has recommended that no special conditions be granted to the inoculated.”

In Japan and the US, the feasibility of it linked to other vaccinations in a digital system is being studied. Hawaii is developing a system for vaccinated people to skip its mandatory 10-day quarantine.

Who is being vaccinated?

 Israel has vaccinated 78 out of every 100 people out of its nine million population.

According to the NGO Our World in Data, Israel leads in COVID-19 doses administered per 100 people, while the US leads in the number of doses administered as of Feb. 16. Israel has vaccinated 78 out of every 100 people out of its nine million population; the US has administered 55 million doses on its 328 million population (current vaccines require two doses per person).

In Asia, China has administered 40.5 million doses; India, 9 million; Israel, 6.7 million; Turkey, 4.6 million; Indonesia, 1.6 million; Bangladesh, 1.3 million.

The Philippines is not on the list. Even the government can’t give a definite date for the arrival of vaccines. Filipinos have pointed out on social media that even Bangladesh—whose GDP is lower than the Philippines by $74.2 billion or P3.5 trillion—has already rolled out its vaccination program.

PhilSTAR L!fe reported yesterday that vaccine manufacturers were particularly concerned about possible liabilities after Sanofi Pasteur was sued over Dengvaxia. “Because of this, the government was compelled to provide the indemnity deal as a legal cover for any hiccups down the line.”

Is it a boon or a bane?

The vaccine passport does not only raise discrimination issues but also financial concerns in the travel industry. It was already being debated late last year as the first vaccines were completing their clinical trials.

Qantas Airline said on Nov. 23, 2020 that it would make vaccination mandatory for passengers traveling long haul in 2021. “I think that's going to be a common thing talking to my colleagues in other airlines around the globe,” Qantas head Alan Joyce said. “We will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft...for international visitors coming out and people leaving the country we think that's a necessity.”

In the same month, Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt said the country may require travelers to provide “proof of vaccination” in order to enter its borders. Australia has one of the tightest border controls during this pandemic.

On Dec. 4, Reuters reported that Airports Council International, which represents airports worldwide, “joined most airlines in calling for a choice between testing or vaccination, fearing a blanket rule imposing pre-flight inoculation would be as disruptive as quarantines.”

“Just as quarantine effectively halted the industry, a universal requirement for vaccines could do the same,” ACI world director general Luis Felipe de Oliveira said. “While we welcome the rapid development and deployment of vaccines, there will be a considerable period before they are widely available.” 

On Jan. 15, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said in a statement that financial loss in the industry amounted to $370 billion, “with airports and air navigation services providers losing a further $115 billion and $13 billion, respectively.

If more countries adopt the vaccine passport, it hardly matters what the airlines require of travelers. And at the rate the Philippine government is actually buying vaccines, Filipinos may be some of the last to be allowed entry into the rest of the world.