Have you been vaccinated? And if so, can you prove it — should you need to?
These are the questions that countless Americans are asking themselves as the United States vaults past 200 million doses, or more than a quarter of its population now vaccinated, against COVID-19. These numbers will only continue to rise, and already, are thrusting us into a fierce debate over the utility, the equity, and the logistics of vaccine passports — proof for the holder of inoculation — that could afford a ticket to normalcy. Vaccine passports in various forms are even now being piloted in cities and countries across the globe, including in Israel, Denmark, and New York.
Not surprisingly, the issue has become the latest front of the culture wars. Several conservatives have argued that such passes violate personal liberties, and Texas and Florida’s governors have both showily signed orders prohibiting their use, citing privacy concerns. Liberals, meanwhile, are split, with some insisting on their value as a powerful public health tool and still others highlighting the risks of exacerbating health disparities, as access to the vaccine itself remains unequal.
This debate is not new. Vaccine passports date back to the late 19th century, during the third bubonic plague pandemic, when officials in British India first required certificates of immunization for domestic travel. Then as now, the issue was both contested and massively complex — encompassing legal, ethical, policy, logistical, and equity dimensions. Despite these debates, vaccine passports in some form seem near inevitable, as a growing number of states and businesses all say they will require documentation to open their doors.
Understanding what’s at stake therefore becomes deeply important. Enter Dr. Arthur Caplan, Mitty Professor of Bioethics and founding director of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine in New York City. Dr. Caplan is the author or editor of over 725 peer-reviewed papers and 35 books, including most recently Vaccination Ethics and Policy. He is steeped in the ethics but also the politics and the practical challenges of vaccine passports. So he’s the perfect person to unravel this issue with us.
Today, we discuss what vaccine passports are and are not, where they are being deployed — and how effective they are in their intended aims —, who opposes them and why, what operationally might thwart their implementation, and their implications for equity and personal liberty.
For more information, check out the links above, and follow @ArthurCaplan on Twitter.