Thabiso Scotch Mufambi
Harare – As debate around the wider use and usefulness of COVID-19 vaccination passports rages on, the travel pass is already a reality in some countries such as Israel and Britain.
Proponents of the idea swear that this is the surest way of fully re-opening the world; while critics contend that such a move discriminates against people who cannot get vaccinated for various reasons, and those who exercise their right not to get inoculated.
The concept of a so-called health passport has been widely criticised because of the uneven distribution of vaccines globally, which has seen rich countries secure most of the available supplies at the expense of developing countries. Observers argue that the use of a health passport under such circumstance would automatically disqualify people from developing poor countries from travelling as their inoculation programmes lag behind those of their wealthier counterparts.
But despite the concerns raised against vaccine passports, the world appears to be heading towards its introduction and wide use for international travel.
Israel, for example, one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, released a mobile application in February this year which shows a person’s vaccination status and allows them access to malls, museums, gyms, hotels, theatres, and concerts.
In England, with effect from May 17, people travelling from that country to selected destinations will be able to use a National Health Services (NHS) app as proof that they have been vaccinated.
The country is easing restrictions by allowing people to travel to 12 countries and territories such as Portugal, Australia and Iceland without having to quarantine upon their return to England.
The NHS app will contain one’s coronavirus vaccination records, provided they are registered with a general medical practitioner in England and are aged 13 years and above. If a person has a smart phone or tablet which can run the app, they can request a paper version at least five days after receiving their second vaccine dose.
The British government has also said it is working with the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish administrations to ensure the service is made available to everyone across the United Kingdom.
It is reassuring citizens that there will be some places where vaccination passports will never be required – such as essential shops, public services, and public transport while there will be exemptions for people: those “whom vaccination is not advised, and repeat testing is difficult”.
In the aviation industry, a vaccine passport is seen as inevitable and the only way the industry can return to normalcy.
Dubai Airports chief executive Mr Paul Griffiths told the BBC recently that COVID-19 had led to a 70 percent fall in passengers at the world’s busiest airport.
A record 86.3 million people passed through Dubai International Airport in 2019, but as air travel ground to a screeching halt in response to the virus, numbers fell to 25.8 million in 2020.
“I do not think there is an alternative,” Mr Griffiths said. “I think the problem is not the vaccine passport and its discrimination. It is the need to roll things out and have a proper globally equitable vaccine programme.”
Mr Griffiths believes that vaccination passports will help minimise the risk of the continued spread of the virus at pandemic proportions, and that they should become as normal as going through security checks before boarding an airplane.
“I just do not think the world can survive without that mobility for much longer, certainly socially and economically,” he added.
With the European Union, the G20 and International Air Transport Association all considering different variations of vaccination passports, it is just a matter of time before they become a reality.
Introduction of a COVID-19 passport would not be an entirely new concept.
Currently, yellow fever vaccination is mandatory to enter countries such as Angola, the Central African Republic, Mali, Uganda and others.
But, not everyone is on board with this idea.
The World Health Organisation has spoken out on numerous occasions against the vaccine passports while other critics are also discouraging it on the grounds that it will create distortions in society.
WHO executive director for health emergencies programme, Dr Michael Ryan, recently warned against the passports.
“They do need to be considered, especially in a world where vaccine is distributed in such a grossly inequitable way,” he said.
Africa has also adopted a common position against vaccine passports.
A recent meeting of African Health Ministers endorsed the position which strongly criticises the introduction of a COVID-19 health passport.
“The meeting endorses and supports the Africa common position which calls for a global moratorium against the mandatory and unilateral imposition of COVID-19 vaccine requirements for international travel,” read part of the meeting’s communiqué.
The health ministers said they were dismayed by the severe delays the continent was facing in accessing COVID-19 vaccines. The meeting also supported a growing global call to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines to ensure wider supply of the life-saving drugs.
“The (World Trade Organisation) waiver proposal is the first important step to expand manufacturing of COVID-19 related tools including vaccines and a relevant initiative to ensure truly equitable access to vaccines, medicines and tool during the pandemic,” they said.