Tobold's Blog
Saturday, April 03, 2021
 
Mixed feelings about vaccine passports

After flailing around aimlessly for a few months, the extreme right wing of the Republican party has finally found a political theme on which they a) disagree with the Democrats, and b) can actually claim some relevance to regular people: Vaccine passports. States with Democrat governors like New York introduce them, states with Republican governors like Florida make them illegal. What gives?

While both sides over the coming months will oversimplify their point of view and paint the other side as deranged lunatics, the issue is actually rather complicated. If a business is closed because of a risk of spreading the Corona virus, should that business be allowed to open to people who by having been vaccinated are of much less risk?

One of the reasons that the subject is touchy is that the reason why somebody is or isn't vaccinated will vary. Vaccination rates throughout the world vary. If a person would like to be vaccinated, but vaccinations in his country progress slowly and following some priority list on which he figures lowly, that person would reasonably be upset if for no fault of his own he is excluded from going to a restaurant, while other people are allowed to go. In Belgium, where I live, less than 12% of the population are vaccinated, and most of those are over 65. Imagine a government trying to pass a law saying that only pensioners can go out, go on a vacation, go to a cinema, or eat at a restaurant. It is clear that this wouldn't be very popular.

On the other side, the reason why the extreme right is fighting against vaccine passports is that there is a strong overlap between anti-vaxxer nutjobs and right wing nutjobs. Imagine a country in which everybody who *wants* to be vaccinated *is* vaccinated. In such a situation, a vaccine passport would serve as a strong public health incentive to get vaccinated, which would be a good thing.

The 18th century philosopher Kant designed a philosophy in which good and evil depends on reason, not religion. He devised a very simple test, the categorical imperative, to find out whether an action is good or evil: Simply imagine what would happen if everybody did this action. On this basis, it is very clear that is everybody was an anti-vaxxer, there would be millions more deaths from Corona, and the pandemic would last much longer. Anti-vaxxers basically are selfish bastards that rely on everybody else being reasonable and getting vaccinated for their health. But "forced vaccinations" wouldn't work very well in Western democracies. So a vaccine passport could be an extremely useful "nudge" for people to get vaccinated, because it gives them a selfish incentive to do so, instead of relying on them to be willing to do good for the greater community. Any scheme that relies on people being selfish, greedy, and/or stupid is likely to succeed. Schemes that rely on them being selfless and enlightened tend to fail.

My preferred solution would be that vaccine passports should only be introduced once a large majority of citizens has had at least one opportunity to get vaccinated. Let's say at 50% vaccination rate in the country. Then the vaccine passport becomes a useful public health measure driving the numbers up to the level of herd immunity (and yes, we aren't totally sure how high that is exactly, 60% to 75%). If somebody is excluded from visiting a restaurant or taking a plane because he didn't want to contribute to the fight against a pandemic, that is fine by me.

Comments:
The real problem isn't with the practice but the precedent. The arguments in favor of vaccine passports may be convincing but it doesn't take much of a thought experiment to come up with a realistic scenario in which similar proof of compliance could be required for some kind of ostensibly reasonable, public-spirited action with which you or I might have serious doubts or be in open disagreement.

The less abstruse objection would be who is going to enforce the process? Most countries already have age-related restrictions to various activities, many of which are widely flouted, frequently with the knowledge or even connivance of the supposed gatekeepers. Where enforced, these restrictions already cause friction and sometimes violence. This, being highly politicized, would risk becoming a focus for dissent.

It's never a good idea to pass laws that can't be enforced effectively without causing more problems than they solve. That said, there have been numerous similar issues in my lifetime where legisaltion was passed and did eventually find acceptance, albeit often after a period of turmoil. I guess this will just be one more. I've had my vaccine so I guess I'm in if it happens.
 
It's a very messy problem, which messes (pun intended) with a lot of different parts of society. If I approach the problem rationally, the answer is as simple as your Kant solution: the obvious ideal condition is vaccination for everyone, those who refuse be damned.

But the real difficulty is where/how to draw the line. For me the problem will "solve itself" with tourist-dependent countries/regions which will request it in order to save the season (and their profits). A region having an outbreak in the middle of the touristic season is suicide and they'll never take the chance. And I can understand a hotel refusing customers who don't show proof of vaccination as it opens itself to litigation in case an outbreak happens and people die.

If I were to vote tomorrow I would vote for passports, even with all the risks, but this is definitely biased by my opinion on anti-vax groups which I put on the same level a terrorist organizations, the only difference is that they use fear-for-profit instead of fear-for-opition-change.
 
Another potential issue might be picking which vaccines are "good enough" to warrant folks using public places or even entering a country, and which are not.
Based on different treatment of existing vaccines, we might imagine hypotetical situation where "good enough-ness" is determined by political factors rather than actual effeciency. In this case, folks that got vaccinated with, say, Chinese vaccine, wouldn't be allowed anywhere in Europe, and vice versa (or would be allowed to enter the country, but would be very limited in what they can do). This would harm freedom of movement on the global scale, which is quite scary.
 
Coming soon: Republicans demand vaccine passports for immigrants only, Democrats demand vaccine passports for everyone except immigrants.
 
I fully agree here with Tobold that vaccine passports should not be introduced before vaccines become widely available, and everybody had a reasonable chance to get one.

As for precedent for introducing vaccine requirements - well, for example immigrants to the US are required to get a number of vaccinations: https://www.uscis.gov/tools/designated-civil-surgeons/vaccination-requirements.

Schools throughout US and Europe also have require kids to be vaccinated.


 
There's one more complication. The vaccines are only approved for "emergency use." They are not fully certified and therefore most governments cannot mandate their use.
 
The devil in the details, that no one seems to be considering, is the effectiveness and longevity of the vaccinations themselves. I'm seeing several reports that a few of the vaccines might have to be re-taken every six months to a year, or so. It seems like it might not be a one-time deal, and many Americans are rightfully concerned about passport requirements in lieu of such uncertainty. It's way too early to consider a passport requirement at this stage.
 
The problem with a vaccine "passport" is enforcement of any such thing would vary depending on the city/county you live in just like the vast majority of Covid-19 regulations do. Where I live going into a business without a mask is a 50/50 on whether an employee will tell you something or not. I don't see enforcement of a passport having better odds.

Then you have to consider if the Biden administration is even willing to put such a policy in place. We still don't even have a federal mask Mandate. I seriously doubt Biden is willing to mandate passports either. He has so far proven to be exactly what I thought he'd be, a moderate President. I wouldn't be surprised if the initial reports of his admin talking about a passport were put out there by his team to gauge public reaction.

There are many moderate voters, especially religious ones who absolutely would not support him if such a mandate was put in place. Religious people especially see this as akin a Revelation 13:17 scenario. Biden will most likely need these voters to win a second term. I predict he won't do anything to upset them.
 
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