COVID-19 has posed the biggest threat to human life in over a hundred years, but scientists and medical experts worked tirelessly day and night to engineer a series of vaccines in record time. Thankfully, we now have some light at the end of the tunnel and the conclusion to this nightmare is hopefully in sight.
With vaccinations now administered to many of our most vulnerable groups including those in the most senior age brackets and people suffering from illness, the next stage is to offer inoculation to people who are at less risk. Experts and government advisors are optimistically predicting more or less everyone residing in Western nations should have been offered a shot by the end of the year at the very latest.
As such, many governments and private companies are now pushing the idea of vaccine passports – government-issued documentation which proponents argue will simplify the process of showing proof of vaccination or test results. Vaccine passports would help airlines and businesses in the hospitality sector establish whether their customers have been vaccinated or received a negative PCR test, allowing them to refuse entry to anyone deemed to pose a risk in an effort to limit potential transmission.
Although the idea of vaccine passports is gathering momentum, there are some detractors who argue that as well as being unfair towards those still waiting for their injection, by excluding anyone who hasn’t been inoculated, essentially the government is mandating vaccinations.
There are a number of reasons why this should make us feel more than a little uneasy, not least because dividing the population up into two camps – the vaccinated and the non-vaccinated – will inevitably lead to discrimination in some way or another.
While discrimination in any form is never a good thing, when we delve a little deeper, we can start to see that the proposal will disproportionately affect the vulnerable and/or disadvantaged, who’ll be hit the hardest if the current plans for vaccine passports get the green light.
That’s because privileges for those inoculated against the virus would naturally favour the demographics that are vaccinated at higher rates. When we’re analysing Western countries, those demographics tend to be white and well off.
According to research conducted by the Royal College of GPs, white people are twice as likely to have been vaccinated than people from black backgrounds, and three times as likely compared to those who have mixed ethnicity. If we’re suddenly excluding those who are yet to receive their vaccination, it’s pretty clear that people from ethnic minority or working-class backgrounds will be over-represented.
Close your eyes and just imagine for a second what that would look like – a society that disproportionately allows privileged white folk to dine in restaurants, attend sports events and drink in bars, while people of colour or those from poorer backgrounds are disproportionately denied entry. Not a pretty picture, I think you’ll agree!
The low uptake among Black and Latino groups, fuelled partly by false conspiracy theories which are currently causing a great deal of suspicion among these communities, isn’t helping matters at all. In the US, although acceptance of the vaccine is very high, around 28% of Latinos reported they were unlikely to get vaccinated when the shot becomes available to them. The vaccination uptake among African Americans is even lower at 35%.
Falsehoods that are being perpetuated, such as the claim that the vaccine can cause infertility, are fostering suspicion and contributing to much of the wariness that’s seeing many members of these communities refuse the jab. However, there are other reasons for the low uptake among Black and Latino groups, and some of these misgivings stem from a distrust not just in the vaccine itself, but also in the healthcare systems overseeing their implementation.
Years of what many in these communities see as institutional racism have meant that ethnic minorities have historically been underrepresented within health research including vaccine trials, and this has led to a great deal of apprehension due to this unfair treatment that dates back generations.
If health professionals are to rectify some of the damage that’s been done and encourage members of these communities to get vaccinated, which is essential if the population is to reach herd immunity, then it’s clear the focus needs to be on building bridges and re-establishing a higher degree of trust, as well as debunking these dangerous conspiracy theories that are causing so much scepticism within these communities.
In addition to the potential problems caused by some demographics being vaccinated at a lower rate, there are also concerns about how exactly the vaccine passports will work and whether everyone will have access. How they’ll be implemented is currently being debated, but the suggestion that seems to be the most likely outcome is a digital solution where medical records are kept in an app, which can then be shown upon request.
But while that might sound like a good idea in theory, in practice a certificate accessible by digital means only could inadvertently discriminate against many of the most vulnerable in society. If suddenly we’re required to own a smartphone, tablet or laptop to prove we’ve been vaccinated, does that mean those who don’t will suddenly be unable to gain access to some venues or services?
This seems terribly unfair, and it raises all sorts of questions about whether those affected by poverty may be disincluded, at a time when many people are already struggling financially due to the ongoing economic impact of COVID.
Similarly, asylum-seekers and refugees, who are undoubtedly some of the most vulnerable people in society, will also be at increased risk of discrimination. That’s because in addition to the fact many of these people don’t own mobile phones (up to 29% of households according to research by GSMA), it can be notoriously difficult for those who have fled their homeland without paperwork to access official documentation when they arrive in a new country. This will undoubtedly cause lengthy delays and mean many asylum-seekers and refugees are waiting for long periods of time to receive vaccine passports, while some might never receive theirs at all, potentially barring them from accessing a range of services and venues in future.
A large proportion of refugees and asylum seekers in the United States come from Black and Hispanic communities, and when we consider how vaccine passports will be enforced across different ethnic groups, this is another area where there’s a danger of discrimination. In a report by Time Magazine, police data revealed there was a racial discrepancy in the policing of COVID laws during the lockdowns, with members of minority groups stopped and given fines more often than white citizens. This led to experts and campaigners questioning whether the fines were being issued fairly.
So, after a disproportionate number of people from minorities were fined during the first two lockdowns, it’s easy to see who is most likely to be stopped and asked for their vaccine passport once they’re rolled out, representing yet another example of the discrimination this new system is likely to create for these communities, of which many asylum seekers and refugees are members.
The vulnerabilities of asylum seekers and refugees have already been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, and as such these people are more likely to suffer from the physical, mental and socioeconomic effects of the pandemic. If we throw discrimination into the mix via the administration of vaccine passports, this could cause even more harm for a demographic that needs support now more than ever.
As well as creating the potential for discrimination, the plan also runs the risk of further alienating those who are already sceptical about the vaccine. Worries about the speedy nature of the vaccine’s development, combined with the endless stream of anti-vax commentary that’s currently rife on social media, has resulted in a great deal of apprehension among members of the public, and with the introduction of vaccine passports there’s a strong chance this suspicion could become even more intense if the shots are now viewed as government-mandated.
In order to achieve herd immunity, it’s estimated around 80% of the population will need to be vaccinated. Even before the suggestion of vaccine passports this target would’ve been difficult to achieve. If more people are now deterred from getting the jab due to perceived government pressure, it’ll be practically impossible.
With the current proposal for vaccine passports gaining more traction, it looks increasingly likely that in the not-too-distant future we’ll be required to provide proof of either a vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative PCR test – or maybe even both – simply to access many of the venues and services we were previously accustomed to.
While there’s no doubt something needs to be put in place in order to keep us safe and allow businesses to limit the threat of transmission, all the evidence suggests that if vaccine passports in the currently-discussed form are pushed through, many demographics will be at a severe disadvantage and are at risk of being discriminated against. If these current plans aren’t given a major re-think, it could open up a real can of worms moving forward.
This post was written by Darryl Rigby, Content Executive at the Immigration Advice Service