It started as a pandemic of an as-yet-unknown virus, very quickly uniting all in isolation.
COVID-19 exposed the fragility of world economies and, with the appearance of the first effective vaccines, it further revealed and highlighted the inefficient and chaotic functioning of governments, lack of investment in science, and disorganisation and inadequacy of public health systems.
We have also witnessed diplomatic resourcefulness, and even the politization of global international relations, through the speed of procurement and immunization of citizens of individual countries. And just when it looked like – after more than a year of living in tracksuits, reduced more or less to the square footage of our homes – this summer, instead of taking pictures of our homemade food, we might once again be taking a selfie with a cold beer somewhere on a sunny coast, the coronavirus has touched on another matter: The issue of human rights, or, more specifically, the freedom of movement.
Formally, there is no dilemma for EU officials: freedom of movement is a given, that is not up for debate. Recently announced as the Digital Green Certificate, in a short time renamed and officially presented on 20 May as the EU Digital COVID Certificate, a document that should allow all EU citizens, irrespective of their immunization status, to travel more easily inside and outside the European Union was unveiled.
European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, was clear at a recent online press briefing: “The EU Digital COVID Certificate will be free of charge. Everyone should have access to the Certificate.”
The Certificate itself, as a hard copy or a digital QR code, which will be in circulation from 1 July this year, is indeed free of charge for the entire population. The content of the Certificate pertaining to current immunization status, however, could lead to discrimination. In particular, the chunk of the population that has not been infected with COVID-19 and has yet to be vaccinated could be disadvantaged.
Namely, while vaccines and vaccination certificates are free of charge, as is proof that someone has been diagnosed as positive in the past 6 months and thus built up immunity, the testing of a healthy individual for travel purposes is not free, with costs for this in some cases exceeding one hundred euros.
To improve the mobility of its citizens, which has to date been severely impacted by the pandemic, the EU has injected a financial vaccine to facilitate the purchasing of COVID-19 tests. One hundred million euros to purchase over 20 million rapid antigen tests, more specifically. An additional 35 million was mobilized through an agreement with Red Cross to increase the testing capacities of Member States through mobile testing facilities.
The EU officials clarify: “This will help to ensure that tests for the Certificate will be affordable for citizens. Fast and accurate testing is key for tackling COVID-19, and tests need to be accessible to countries. Rapid antigen tests also play a crucial role to slow down the spread of COVID-19. Having a wider list of recognized rapid antigen tests will also make it easier for citizens to benefit from the EU Digital COVID Certificate. They are also cheaper than the ‘gold standard’ PCR tests.”
The sum allocated by the EU sounds like a considerable amount of money, but, once distributed across the Member States, it is only sufficient for a few days’ worth of (PCR) testing. Since management of health services and medical care, including decisions on pricing and testing costs, is a national competence, the EU’s role is limited to merely recommendations in this regard.
It is up to the Member States to decide whether or not to provide PCR or antigen testing for travel purposes for free, and to ensure that all of their citizens are able to obtain the Certificate under the same conditions. Otherwise, some may be able to exercise their right to free movement, while others, those not immune or vaccinated, would see such rights being limited. The same is true for the Certificate: free of charge for some, while ‘free with an additional cost’ for others.
And to add to the irony, the price will be paid by the most disciplined and patient: those who, respecting all prescribed measures, took care of their own health, and thus by extension the health of the community, and didn’t place a burden on the healthcare system.
However, it's not just the financial aspect that could disadvantage this component of the population. In most Member States, the healthy, antibody-free, unvaccinated demographic is predominantly composed of individuals aged 55 and under, i.e. those more likely to be employed and in households and families that include minors.
Unlike those who failed to take either the virus or the measures against it seriously, these people will still have to wait for their call to be vaccinated, subsequently attempt to schedule their vaccinations, wait for their second dose, and maybe – if at all possible – try to squeeze in their holidays between the two vaccinations.
If they succeed, both themselves and their children will likely still have to be tested before departure, depending on the country they are travelling to. Finally, they must time their departure so as to reach their intended destination within 48 or 72 hours of taking their test.
Additionally, some 2.3 million non-EU citizens who live and work within the EU cannot be ignored. Many of them will travel to see their families in their home country for the first time in nearly two years. Their exercising of their right to freedom of movement may well include a few more transit points across different regions of the world, and possibly also a requirement to re-test. All in the hope that no quarantine will be required upon arrival at their final destination.
So, while the Certificate is designed to make travel easier, this summer holiday season will certainly not be like those before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The first six weeks from 1 July, when the certificate is expected to come into use, are just a preparatory phase; a “warm-up period”, in layman's terms. Mistakes are allowed during this period, EU officials say.
When this phase is over and everything runs smoothly, currently predicted as mid-August, the vaccinations should have been fully rolled-out and available to everyone across the EU. As of this time, children will return to school and those vaccinated to their routines, of course still taking into account epidemiological measures.
Hoping that the pandemic will abate, this could be a moment for reflection, and even for planning a winter vacation. To take a well-earned break from the stress caused by the summer one. If the epidemiological situation doesn’t worsen, fingers crossed.