The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 brought most economic activities, as well as local and international travel, to a standstill. As tourism accounts for half of all service exports in Latin America and Caribbean, the industry’s paralysis has had a deep and negative impact.
Now, however, proposals for the development of vaccination certificates present an option to reopen cross-border mobility in a safer manner and offer a route out of this economic nightmare for nations that rely heavily on tourism and general business travel.
A vaccine passport is simply a credential that can be used to show that a person has been vaccinated or to demonstrate a person’s health status, generally through a smartphone app or a QR code that has been printed.
“It is common practice to issue vaccination cards after immunization. But now we’re talking about some sort of certificate to facilitate international travel. A main problem with that is the consequences for people’s mobility rights and ability to choose not to get vaccinated without social consequences,” said Augusto Arce, a managing partner with the GLC Abogados law firm in Costa Rica.
Vaccine passports are no longer theoretical. Israel was the first nation to implement some sort of certificate through its “Green Badge” scheme. Countries as diverse as China, Denmark and Saudi Arabia, and regional organizations like the European Union and the African Union are also developing some sort of immunity passport.
In the Latin America & the Caribbean region, the Costa Rica Chamber of Health has put forward a specific proposal to implement vaccine certificates, while the Jamaican government has a plan under consideration. For both of these countries, tourism is an essential economic sector. In Costa Rica, tourism fell by almost 70% in 2020. Jamaica, a country in which tourism generates about 20% of its economy, the GDP contracted by an estimated 18% between April and June 2020.
The private sector has also been engaged and in many ways is leading the path towards a standardized digital certification system. Pangea, an Israeli digital ID and border control software firm, has proposed a biometric smart card that will store antigen and antibody test results. IDnow, a German verification company is working with the UK government to facilitate the rollout of a possible vaccine passport.
“A main problem with vaccine passports are people’s mobility rights and ability to choose not to get vaccinated without social consequences” — Augusto Arce
The Biden administration has announced that it is working with tech companies and non-profit organizations to plan and coordinate the US’ efforts to secure vaccine certificates. Prominent organizations including Microsoft and the Mayo Clinic formed the Vaccine Credential Initiative, a partnership between technology and health organizations to expand the coordination of vaccine passports development.
“It will be too challenging for governments around the world to monopolize the development of vaccine passports. We’ll probably have different schemes, with the private sector, particularly the airlines, leading the way,” said Arce.
Airlines have been lobbying for the standardization of health forms such as Covid-19 test results and vaccine status. The argument focuses on the critical importance of verifiable testing of vaccination data to the return of travel. The International Air Transportation Association is testing the so-called ‘Travel Pass’, a first step to launch a comprehensive vaccine passport. Virgin Atlantic, Japan’s ANA, Emirates and Singapore Airlines are among the airlines participating the IATA Travel Pass assessment. Last week, Iberia became the first airline to connect Latin America and Europe using the IATA Travel Pass.
Legal Concerns and Implications for Economic Activity
With many startups and established tech firms like Google and Apple working on the development of technology for digital vaccine passports, the innovations being created could be effective for other companies and industries in the future. The implications for business growth are significant, especially for software development, biometric technology and systems integration.
“The amount of innovation we’re seeing is very good news. In New York for example, they are trying to use blockchain technology for their own vaccine certificate. That’s great for future products and consumers,” said Arce. Earlier this year New York launched the Excelsior Pass, a version of a vaccine passport.
The unprecedented cooperation between the private sector, health organizations and government agencies has particular consequences for the post-Covid-19 recovery, where more government intervention – and therefore greater scrutiny of business – is expected.
Ethical aspects of the vaccine passport are key with The American Civil Liberties Union warning that social inequalities and privacy rights must be into account
Governments and corporations are also considering the ethical aspects and legal ramifications of vaccine passports. Despite having a global health precedent for immunization certificates, many still question the morality of the proposal. The World Health Organization first established vaccine certification standards for yellow fever in 1933. Currently, many countries in Africa and the Americas demand vaccination against yellow fever as an entry requirement.
Vaccine passports create the perception that vaccination is de facto compulsory and that those who refuse one will face social exclusion, say critics. The Biden administration recently denied any possibilities of vaccine passports conditioning the entrance of foreign nationals to the US. The American Civil Liberties Union has warned that social inequalities and privacy rights must be into account as well.
The WHO set the Smart Vaccination Certificate technical specifications and standards and the smart vaccination certificate consortium, bringing together experts on the matter. Until this point, the WHO has cautioned against the use of immunity certificates over ethical and logistical concerns, particularly those related to lower income countries which do not have the same access to vaccines.
For Augusto Arce there is an individual freedom concern, but then we have issues such as data privacy and potential discrimination against low income people without access to smartphones, the balance between safety, privacy and freedom is very thin.