Vaccine passports ethical minefield

Covid passports are an incentive to vaccinate, and high vaccination rates are good for everyone....
Covid passports are an incentive to vaccinate, and high vaccination rates are good for everyone. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
A domestic Covid ‘‘passport’’ raises hard questions about discrimination, inequality and coercion, write  Tim Dare and Justine Kingsbury.

With Covid-19 causing extraordinarily intrusive and expensive lockdowns, vaccine “passports” or certificates are increasingly seen as key to getting out of them. Decision-makers and gatekeepers — from border guards to maitre d’s — will have a means of knowing who can safely engage with others.

To that end, the New Zealand Government aims to have one in place by year’s end. But vaccine passports have also prompted riots and protests overseas, and there are as yet unanswered questions about their use domestically.

A central concern is that they will cause or exacerbate inequality because access to a passport relies on access to vaccines, and access to vaccines has been unequal.

Internationally, citizens of some countries are more likely to have access to vaccines — and so to vaccine passports — than citizens of other countries. And within countries, some individuals and groups are more likely to have access to vaccines than others.

Furthermore, these inequalities track familiar and ethically troubling fault lines: New Zealand has struggled to lift Maori vaccination rates to match those of European New Zealanders, though Maori are more at risk.

And vaccine passports could compound existing inequalities, as those with them return to work and other activities while those without remain trapped.

Inequality and discrimination

But there are reasons to think these legitimate concerns don’t automatically mean vaccine passports are unethical.

Firstly, the need to contain Covid-19 justifies the significant restrictions of important liberties in lockdowns. But to the extent that vaccines work, that justification doesn’t apply to someone who has been vaccinated. The justification for curtailing liberties has gone (or at least, given the possibility of breakthrough cases, been considerably weakened), so for the vaccinated the curtailment should go too.

Secondly, distinguishing between people on the basis of their Covid immunity may be discrimination, but it’s not obvious it is unjustified discrimination.

Whether someone is vaccinated or not is arguably legitimate grounds for discrimination. The unvaccinated (for whatever reason) pose a greater risk to others than the vaccinated. They are also more likely to suffer severe symptoms if they get Covid-19.

Thirdly, one reason to tolerate inequality is that sometimes it improves the position of the disadvantaged. We might tolerate doctors’ high incomes, for example, if the promise of a higher income led people to study medicine and we believed a good supply of doctors benefited the worst-off members of our community.

Vaccine passports might work the same way. They help get the economy going, so the Government can support those still locked down. They’re also an incentive to vaccinate, and high vaccination rates are good for everyone — perhaps especially the unvaccinated.

An offer you can’t refuse

But the use of vaccine passports as incentives poses some real issues. How they are used is crucial. Under some proposals, vaccination passports are (like conventional passports) essentially another international travel document.

Increasingly, however, countries (including New Zealand potentially) are proposing their use to control access to a significant range of domestic activities, such as returning to work in person, dining out or going to concerts and sports events.

In this context, it’s clear some incentives can be coercive: they might be an offer you can’t refuse.

There are some people desperate to travel overseas, perhaps for good family reasons. But most of us can still decide whether the incentive of the IATA Travel Pass is enough to motivate us to travel.

Justified coercion?

Many people, though, will simply not be in a position to refuse the incentive of a domestic vaccine passport. Getting back to work and a pre-Covid life will not be a discretionary matter. For them, domestic vaccination passports are likely to be coercive.

For now at least, the Government insists vaccination will not be mandatory. But effectively it will be for those who have no choice but to get a vaccine passport to work or have access to non-discretionary domestic activities.

And that coercion will not apply equally. There will be much greater pressure on those who are already socially disadvantaged and less able to make a genuine choice.

Coercion is sometimes justified, and perhaps the threat posed by Covid-19 warrants it. However, we should be wary of accepting kinds of coercion that are discriminatory and inegalitarian.

Governments need to be clear

So what should we do about vaccine passports and vaccine incentives?

We could restrict them to more discretionary activities, such as international travel, concerts and restaurants. That would be an offer anyone could refuse, especially the already disadvantaged.

But this use of passports might be insufficient incentive — too many people might refuse to get one. That’s a problem if we think trying to increase vaccination rates is justified.

So we think governments have a choice: they should address concerns about vaccine passports by avoiding uses that are coercive, discriminatory and inegalitarian. Alternatively, they should acknowledge their position that Covid-19 justifies coercion, and make vaccination mandatory.

The second option would be less discriminatory, and seems less likely to threaten trust and co-operation than the surreptitious and uneven compulsion provided by wide-ranging requirements for domestic vaccine passports.


• Tim Dare is a professor of philosophy at the University of Auckland. Justine Kingsbury is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Waikato.


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If a business requires customer evidence, you will have to show something, or be refused entrance.

They are also a lie. Brought on by those who will do anything to get their old lives back and don't care to know what exactly this vaccine affords you . So here goes.. It has a 67% effectiveness against the Delta variant, 10% against MU the "new" one taking over the US. Vaccinated people can still catch and pass on Covid 19 or it variants. They should get less sick and may not require hospitalisation. They are less likely to die of its complications. The vaccine is for your health. Not to protect others. It is not a golden ticket. I have only had one jab so far waiting for the next. Meanwhile the PM has been fully vaccinated for about a month. Do you see her relax her guard? No. Please do some reading.

I want my freedom back before I get vaccinated. Anything else is blackmailing citizens with their God-given freedoms.

Freedoms were not handed down by a Supernatural entity. They were fought for, by armies, partisans, tribes and liberal reformers.

True if you are an atheist. God given for the rest of us.

I agree. Supernatural entities do not give rights away.
The USA Declaration of Independence is often held up as the chief statement of God given rights (as plagiarized from John Locke) it lists "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as inalienable God given rights
Well.. That hardly matches the evidence. All Gods sanction slavery, so liberty Is clearly not god given. Gods certainly don't guarantee life, they all have a penchant for smiting someone e.g. world wide floods and plenty of first born put to death at the wave of a hand. And having denied us life and liberty logic follows that the other old saw, the pursuit of happiness, is clearly not god given either.
In my experience those who look to their gods for their rights are more interested in removing yours. Be wary of anyone who claims they are entitled by a god.

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