International travelers have long accepted the use of passports as normal. The Soviet Union required citizens to carry internal passports for domestic transit, something authoritarian regimes still do. Now, with COVID vaccines rushing out of labs and into arms, the push for “vaccine passports” is gathering momentum – around the world and at the White House.
These so-called passports, or for those who prefer a softer term, certificates, take COVID surveillance to a new level, potentially requiring proof of vaccination not just for transport, but to enter public locations, for admission to educational institutions, and to participate in what have, until now, been normal aspects of life. Not to mention the part where you have to have a hastily developed substance injected into your body to get one.
Digital health passes and contact tracing apps emerged early in the pandemic. Expected to take the form of smartphone apps or digital certificates, vaccine passports are set to manifest the next stage of COVID-related social control.
Biden Working on National Vaccine Passport?
The Biden administration is coordinating plans for a national vaccine passport, at least according to a prominent Washington newspaper, which cited five anonymous officials. The federal government is reportedly trying to manage 17 separate passport initiatives, including work from IBM, the WHO, and a group called the Vaccination Credential Initiative (which includes Bill Gates’ Microsoft, among others). Whether this report is accurate or not, there is little doubt that governments worldwide are figuring out how to convince their populations that vaccine passports should be the way of the future.
Various officials and academics are quoted as expressing concern over a stigma related to government-issued papers – but it appears the White House is working to circumvent this negativity.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki gave assurances that there will not be a universal vaccine requirement or central database for monitoring inoculations, adding that the private sector will drive the passports, rather than the government. Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and White House senior advisor for COVID response, appeared to confirm that the Biden administration is working on vaccine passports with private companies, stating in a March 29 press briefing that:
“This is going to hit all — all parts of society. And so, naturally, the government is involved. But unlike other parts of the world, the government here is not viewing its role as the place to create a passport, nor a place to hold the data of citizens. We view this as something that the private sector is doing and will do …
“We do know that there is a segment of the population that is concerned that the government will play too heavy-handed of a role in monitoring their vaccinations and that mandates will be coming from the federal government and important — in point of fact, it would discourage people to feel like that was the role we’re playing.”
The American people are distrustful of the government, so to avoid looking bad, it appears the Biden administration is outsourcing the job of developing vaccine passports to private companies.
The three key doubts behind the passes are, first, Americans’ willingness to submit to a system which demands the regular presentation of “papers, please” (not to mention agreeing to get the vaccine in the first place); second, privacy concerns; and third, technical compatibility between states and even other countries. President Biden is already working on the latter, it seems, having signed a Jan. 21 executive order directing key cabinet members to work with international organizations on assessing the prospects of linking vaccinations to standard paper or electronic certificates.
State Actions and Reactions
New York was the first U.S. state to forge ahead into this brave new world with its Excelsior Pass, which runs on an IBM platform. As described by Liberty Nation’s James Fite, the app “will be required in order to attend any event – weddings, games, concerts, etc. – where there are more people than allowed under the social gathering limit. Folks can finally get back to some form of normalcy, and that’s great … until we consider what it means to require an allegedly free people to show some form of passport to just go about life as usual.”
Will other states follow suit? As with the contact tracing apps developed soon after the pandemic’s onset, as well as mask mandates and lockdowns, some states are all in, while others look on with skepticism.
Hawaii, too, appears to be moving toward imposing vaccination passports, at least for travel between the islands, according to local outlet KHON2 News. The passes could initially take the form of a card in just a few weeks, though officials will be working with a company called First Vitals to create an app. “They would be able to verify the health record, they would then encrypt it so people can’t steal someone’s health record. Although really, all it is is whether you got vaccinated or not and your name and the date it occurred,” commented Lt. Gov. Josh Green (D). “It would immediately empower probably about half of our travelers inside the islands to travel safely,” he added.
Other states have been less enthusiastic. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) is among those who have rejected the idea – not surprising as Florida has been notoriously resistant to COVID restrictions, though without appearing to suffer excessive fatalities compared to harsher states. “It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society,” DeSantis said at a press conference. He made note of privacy concerns over such sensitive data in the hands of corporations. “You want the fox to guard the henhouse?” he remarked, “Give me a break.”
Other GOP lawmakers spoke out against the idea, with Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) tweeting simply, “Vaccine Passports are unconstitutional. Period.”
No Government Monopoly on Power
Will the U.S. government impose vaccine passports on Americans? It may not need to. The private sector may go ahead and require proof of vaccination for customers to use their services – something various institutes and companies are already investigating.
Some may be wondering how the private sector gathering all this personal information and administering strict social controls is an improvement on the government doing so – but nothing has expanded corporate influence in recent years like the tech boom.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.