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Are vaccine passports our golden ticket to normalcy?

WORLD Radio - Are vaccine passports our golden ticket to normalcy?


MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the first day of April, 2021.

Thanks for joining us for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham.

First up: vaccine passports.

AUDIO: I’ve got a golden ticket.

It’s not a golden ticket that lets you into a mythic chocolate factory. But it may give you access to activities like international travel or indoor concerts. Remember those?  So what’s the catch?

WORLD’s Anna Johansen Brown has our story.

ANNA JOHANSEN BROWN, REPORTER: People keep wishing things would “get back to normal.” Unrestricted travel. Indoor dining without seating limits. Dragging yourself to a gym.

Israel has already rolled out part of its solution: The Green Pass. If you’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or you can prove you’ve had COVID and are now immune, you get a stamp of approval that gives you exclusive access to gyms, hotels, theaters, pools, and concerts.

    AUDIO: [song]

This is the first “back to normal” concert in Tel Aviv. Everyone still wore masks, but they had access to a pre-pandemic luxury that most people have only dreamt about for the last year.

Whether for international travel or a trip to the pub, vaccine certificates are fast becoming part of the new normal. Although if you think about it, they’ve already been around for a while.

HODGE: Will vaccine passports become kind of standard fare? They already are. Period. They already are. 

James Hodge is a professor at Arizona State University. He specializes in vaccine law.

HODGE: Health care workers in the United States every year gotta get vaccinated for influenza. School kids going back to school, gotta get vaccinated, college, universities, you’re not arriving on campus if you’re not vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella. You don’t get to go to certain countries right now unless you’re vaccinated for specific conditions.

For example, you can’t go to some parts of Africa unless you’ve had the Yellow Fever vaccine. Hodge says international travel is pretty clear cut.

HODGE: Yeah, no, your constitutional rights kind of stop at the door. As you arrive at the EU, they could set their own conditions for whatever passport they feel is necessary to welcome you into the United Kingdom, France…Canada or Mexico could do it. If you want to enter you will enter under their specific guidance.

But when businesses or states place restrictions, it gets a little more complicated. Especially in the United States.

Art Caplan directs the medical ethics division at the NYU School of Medicine. He doesn’t think the U.S. government will start issuing vaccine mandates. At least, not yet. But businesses? Absolutely.

CAPLAN: Because of private business in the free market can require whatever the heck it wants. I can say, you can’t come into this hotel unless you wear a 10 foot turban. It’s the equivalent of saying no shoes no shirt no service, they can set conditions for coming in. 

New York state recently announced that it would roll out an app called the Excelsior Pass. It lets people log their vaccination or negative test status. Then, if you want to go somewhere like Madison Square Garden, you have to present the pass to get in.

CAPLAN: Remember, nobody has a right to go to Madison Square Garden, nobody has a right to go on a cruise. I know people sometimes get their backs up and say you can’t make me do this. Well, it’s true. Nobody can make you do it. But they can certainly say, you can’t come in here, you can’t go there. And they might even be able to say, I’m not going to hire you, unless you show me that you’re vaccinated.

But Caplan admits that is going to create friction. Some people don’t have access to the vaccine, and won’t for a long time, especially in poorer countries that don’t have stockpiles to distribute. And some people, for health reasons or on religious grounds, don’t want the vaccine. And those groups of people will be at odds.

CAPLAN: You could have a two class situation for a while, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated with the vaccinated having a lot more liberty, freedom, movement to go where they want, easier to get employment. 

There are dozens of apps and systems in development right now, and that means a whole lot of unknowns. What counts as “vaccinated” or “immune”? What if this app or this business allows the AstraZeneca vaccine, but this state or this organization doesn’t? What about China’s vaccine, or Russia’s—do those count? Do you have to be vaccinated two weeks prior to the concert you want to go to, or only 10 days? What if vaccine immunity doesn’t last forever, or it turns out you can still spread COVID even after you’ve been vaccinated?

Art Caplan says because of those unanswered questions, it might be jumping the gun just a bit to start requiring vaccine passports this early in the game.

But businesses are desperate for anything that will allow them to return to normal. Dorit Reiss teaches law at the University of California.

REISS: Businesses want to do two things. One is they want to avoid having to close down again or having to reduce activity again, and two, they want to signal we’re good actors, you don’t have to hit us on the head with public health measures again.

Reiss says it’s important to have some kind of standards across the board. But maybe those should be up to trade organizations instead of governments.

Art Caplan says businesses should also keep in mind people who choose not to be vaccinated or who can’t be vaccinated.

CAPLAN: One way to accommodate is to say, well I don’t want to get vaccinated on religious grounds or even personal grounds or health grounds, but what I will do is get a COVID test every day.

That’s not practical right now. Not everyone has access to a COVID test every day, but Caplan thinks that could be where we’re headed.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen Brown.


(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo) A man presents his “green passport,” proof that he is vaccinated against the coronavirus, on opening night at the Khan Theater for a performance where all guests were required to show proof of vaccination or full recovery from the virus, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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