There will be no shortage of takers when the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine become available in the United States, probably later this month. Front-line medical workers, first responders, and the elderly and vulnerable will gladly accept assigned places at the head of the queue.
Things will get more complicated once those first doses have been administered. Mostly it is a matter of logistics. Manufacturing, transporting and administering protective jabs for most of the nation’s 330 million people in a matter of months, concurrently with similar efforts for billions more around the world, will be one of the greatest technical and medical challenges of our lifetimes.
Global economic recovery, the livelihoods of tens of millions of workers and the viability of entire industries depend on rapid deployment. A successful rollout also relies on broad public acceptance of the medical evidence that new Western-developed vaccines are safe and effective. But a combination of ignorance, foolishness and misinformation may deter significant numbers of people from getting vaccinated for a considerable length of time. The longer it takes to immunize most of the population, or at least most of population that is past puberty (since most otherwise healthy children are less vulnerable and, some studies suggest, relatively ineffective vectors for the new coronavirus), the longer we will have community spread and its attendant spikes, lockdowns, hospitalizations and mortality.
Some countries will no doubt simply mandate that the entire target population take the shots. Shirkers will face fines, jail time or other serious legal consequences. Such heavy-handedness is not likely to be sustainable or enforceable in the United States. But it is the height of unfairness to make the restaurant, entertainment and travel industries suffer needlessly because some prospective customers don’t care about leaving themselves vulnerable. Such individuals are shifting the costs of their care and the consequences of their continued spread to those businesses, and to society at large.
Some people need an extra incentive to do the right thing. The travel industry is working on one such incentive – a “digital passport” – that deserves consideration far beyond the international frontiers for which it is being developed.
According to a report in The Hill, plans are well advanced. The International Air Transport Association says it is in the final phase of developing the “Travel Pass” app and the associated digital passport, which it hopes will be universally accepted. The app is scheduled to launch for Apple devices in the first quarter of 2021. The Android version is slated to follow in April.
The digital passport will verify a traveler’s vaccination status and – less importantly as vaccination becomes widespread – the traveler’s recent COVID-19 test results. It will also help ensure that travelers meet the requirements of their destinations, which may vary widely. The IATA is vague, though, about exactly how it will acquire, verify and share traveler information. According to The Hill, “The digital health pass would include a passenger’s testing and vaccine information and would manage and verify information among governments, airlines, laboratories and travelers.” The IATA says the pass will point travelers toward verified testing centers and labs, but it is not clear how travelers tested or vaccinated elsewhere will prove their compliance.
The IATA’s goal is to persuade governments worldwide to drop travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines to restart the hamstrung industry. But the implications of what it is trying to do extend well beyond the travel sector.
If an airline flies only passengers who can show they are immunized, with narrow exceptions, then there is no need to leave seats vacant or make everyone wear masks while on board. Likewise, if a restaurant checks identities and verifies immunization of its patrons at the door, there is no need to limit indoor dining to a fraction of capacity. Similar steps could bring normal attendance back to theaters, concerts and sporting events. You have an arguable right to refrain from immunizing yourself; you have no such right to share your vulnerability or avoidable contagion with others.
When someone is sick, it is customary to wish that person a speedy recovery. The whole world got sick in 2020. Even those of us who did not contract the novel coronavirus faced consequences to our mental health, our relationships or our livelihoods. The new year, just weeks away, offers the promise of a return to economic and physical health.
But the speed of that resurrection will depend on the personal choices of millions of individuals. Anything we can do to encourage them to make healthy, pro-social decisions will hasten the end of the pandemic, saving lives and jobs. Governments and other organizations should get behind the IATA initiative. The goal for a digital vaccine passport is the same as for a vaccine itself: to make sure a measure to keep us all well is safe, effective and widely adopted.