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.