A Vaccine Passport would represent a breach of social contract for western societies
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A Vaccine Passport would represent a breach of social contract for western societies

Thursday, 25 March 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
© Belga

The sudden burst of the Coronavirus epidemic took everybody by surprise. Governments however quickly reacted and, across, the globe — in spite of some minor exceptions — public decisions followed a strikingly similar pattern.

Confinement, social distancing and restrictive measures appeared as the weapon of choice to fight the rapid spread of the virus. Deemed as the only way to protect the most vulnerable groups, confinements had been harsh on populations that, nonetheless, mostly accepted to comply. However, awarding a vaccine passport could greatly endanger both the social acceptability and the legitimacy of these measures.

Early on, it was admitted that Covid-19’s effect was lower on younger and healthier groups of the population — even though the virus admittedly still presented important risks for these communities. However, adopting different level of restriction by age groups and degree of vulnerability would have been a task both complex to enforce and monitor. The rapid spread of the virus and the urgent need to protect the more vulnerable called for a rapid decision and it was therefore decided to confine the entire population.

As time passed, it appeared more and more obvious that these temporary measures would have to last for longer than originally expected. Therefore, alternatives to full confinements started to be framed. For example, the French economist Christian Gollier presented a plan with different layers of restriction based on age groups. The more fragile would have faced more constraints while younger population could enjoy more freedom. Such an approach, according to its supporters, would have protected the fragile populations while preserving the economy.

Breaking with solidarity and more difficult to enforce, this approach was rejected everywhere — even though some minor measures to alleviate confinement’s measures for students were accepted.

The decision to keep the entire population confined was a tough decision that relied on a deal that had been unwittingly passed between the different parts of the population: “We, the healthy, accept to sacrifice around one year of our life to protect the most fragile members of society.”

When vaccination campaigns started, they very logically prioritised the fragile and the elderly. However, hopes for a rapid disappearance of the virus were quickly disappointed. Vaccination campaigns proved more complex to organise and vaccination rate of populations only grow at a sluggish pace. Consequently, many started to advocate for the creation of a “vaccination passport” that would free its holder from the obligation to respect the restrictive measures that are still in full force and effect for the rest of the population.

Proponents of the passport have strong arguments on their side, the main one being the urgent need to relaunch our economies. A report from the Spanish Economy ministry for example highlighted the importance of a passport and the creation of “safe corridors” to kick-start the tourism sector, whose importance for the Spanish economy cannot be denied nor minimised. That’s where the main argument in favour of a passport lies: granting freedom of movement to the vaccinated would give the economy some breathing room. Something that, in the end, would beneficiate to everybody, including those who did not receive a vaccine shot.

Contrastingly, opponents raise important ethical concerns. Mainly, the problem remains that access to vaccine is unequal among populations and mostly relies on purely arbitrary forces. Those who cannot get vaccinated are neither guilty nor responsible for this and yet, they would have to pay the price for that. This would create an unjust difference of treatment. Something that is even clearer when looking at the international level as poorer countries face much more difficulties in vaccinating their populations.

Going back to the point I made earlier, I would like to argue that the main risk carried by the idea of a passport is that it would endanger the social contract that was agreed upon at the beginning of the epidemic.

A rupture of the social contract?

The impact on population’s mental health caused by the confinements and other similar measures are baffling and frightening. According to NHIS, the rate of the population complaining about anxiety disorders climbed from 11% in 2019 to reach a staggering 41.1% in January 2021. Among all groups, students — in other word, the healthier and younger part of the population — was among the most impacted by the restrictive measures set in place. To the point that suicide cases increased in this group, leading to fears of witnessing a suicide epidemic among students.

Even economically, students were severely impacted. In France, the “Observatory of student life” noted that 58% of students who used to work part-time saw their work opportunities drastically reduced. In total, the crisis represented an average income loss of €274 for working student. A dramatic loss for many of them: 57% of surveyed French student mentioned that they were facing difficulties to afford basic goods such as food.

The sacrificed accepted by the healthier are real. They are also the definite proof that, in spite of modern cynicism, solidarity remains a strong social institution.

For many, one can expect that the Covid Passport would put the legitimacy of these sacrifices into question.

The fragile groups paid the heavier death toll, but it changes nothing to the sacrifices consented by the parts of the population that were less endangered. This reality should be neither ignored nor minimised. The vaccine passport would create a dual-citizenship restricting one group’s freedom. An idea that is already dangerous enough in itself. People who did not get vaccinated have committed no crime nor fault, it is just the result of limited resources and punishing them for this will be politically difficult to justify.

Do we really want to grant privileges to some of us? Privileges that, moreover, were made possible by the sacrifices that were consented to by the groups that will have to remain confined. In addition, confinements were described and legitimised as a safety measure to protect the elderly and the weakest. But if these groups are granted a Covid passport, justifying the continuing confinements will prove extremely difficult.

Finally, the passport is simply unfair if we remember that plans to give more liberties to the healthier had been advocated and rejected at the height of the crisis — as illustrated by the Gollier’s plan I presented at the beginning of this article. This idea was rightfully dismissed in the name of solidarity, so why should it be accepted the other way around?

In the recent months, a series of protest against confinement measures — sometimes peaceful sometimes not — popped up all over Europe. Fed by population’s angers and mental exhaustion, these marches demonstrated that many people are slowly reaching their physiological limit. Asking citizens to remain confined is already something difficult, but the Covid passport would make it even harder.

A Covid passport granting full movement privileges to its holder would represent an unfair breach of the social contract that was unwittingly agreed upon at the beginning of the pandemic. It is difficult to know if the risk carried by this decision would materialise or not, but they should not be ignored nor discarded.

I am therefore, personally, against the idea of a Covid passport.