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A COVID passport and a two-tier society

By 'Alapasita Teu September 14, 2021

A COVID passport is coming to a family member, neighbour or a local business near you.  Once it arrives here in New Zealand, this digital proof of your vaccination status or negative test result could loosen the shackles of international travel and border restrictions.  Countries like Israel, Singapore and some EU nations have developed versions of a COVID passport varying in function and use. Some require it for travel purposes only, whilst others have mandated use for indoor venues, businesses, public buildings, and places of worship. It’s only a matter of time before this becomes New Zealand’s new norm. Use of the digital app could possibly extend beyond simply international travel, to domestic businesses, leisure activities and venues, and even public spaces and institutions. 

As vaccines have progressively rolled out worldwide, health inequities between population groups have become apparent, including in our own backyard.

The novelty of a digital vaccine passport has seen countries’ employ a trial and error approach towards this new technology. This ad-hoc game plan has raised questions around data privacy and security, freedoms, and the nature of jurisdictions governing a vaccine passport’s function and use. As vaccines have progressively rolled out worldwide, health inequities between population groups have become apparent, including in our own backyard. Without clarity around its use, there is potential for entrenching existing inequalities in the longer term, should health data be used for other non-intended purposes. It is easy to see us creating a two-tiered society between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, raising concerns around the long-term impacts of vaccine passports. There may be a surge in using private data to govern access to spaces vital for our participation in society, spaces like supermarkets, petrol stations, and pharmacies. 

There are international and domestic standards involved that provide safety frameworks and accountability mechanisms… yet vaccine passports have bypassed these safety precautions.

A stealth approach isn’t always the best tactic for introducing public mandates, nor is it a wise strategy for integrating this new technology into our everyday lives. With most consumer products, safety testing is a necessary and mandatory process for market readiness. It allows for hazards and risks to be identified and the development of compliance and safety measures. There are international and domestic standards involved that provide safety frameworks and accountability mechanisms. Similarly, these processes and shared external standards apply to regular passports, yet vaccine passports have bypassed these safety precautions. In the absence of safety measures, or accepted external controls, it is perhaps best for vaccine passports to be a temporary measure with restrictions that balance civic duties and freedoms. For any long-term plans, it becomes imperative to be clear about the risks involved with their use, be it at home or abroad.

The government needs to trust us to make informed decisions as much as they call for us to trust in them.

There are pieces to the vaccine passport puzzle that require careful consideration and public consultation. All sides of the story need to be told, to be heard, and we must avoid the unintended consequence of inadvertently creating a two-tier have and have-not society. The government needs to trust us to make informed decisions as much as they call for us to trust in them. We must have a more nuanced conversation about vaccine passports, rather than simply to mandate or not.

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