Countries must focus on expanding domestic vaccination to take care of any contraction threats from travellers
Vaccine-based travel has begun. This brings relief for many travellers, and the travel and hospitality industry. It also produces more controversies. Several countries have rolled out vaccine-based travel protocols. The EU’s digital covid certificate (EUDCC) or the ‘green pass’ has come into effect. Several European countries like France, Denmark, Greece, Iceland, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Croatia were allowing vaccinated travellers from some weeks before. So were tourism-dependent small island countries such as Barbados, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands and Grenada. More travel will resume as more countries vaccinate their domestic populations. But vaccine-based travel arrangements have revived apprehensions of countries insisting on specific vaccines for incoming travellers. The EU Green Pass has sparked off a major row. It has only four vaccines on its eligible list: Pfizer-BioNTech’s Comirnaty, Moderna’s Spikevax, J &J’s Jansen and AstraZeneca’s Vaxzervria.
The list doesn’t include Covishield, developed by AstraZeneca and licensed to SII. It also doesn’t include the Chinese pharmacs’ Sinopharm and Sinovac. All three have been approved by the WHO. The WHO is also likely to approve the Russian Sputnik V and Covaxin by India’s Bharat Biotech. Both are already being used in India and several other countries. A discriminatory approach to vaccine-based travelling was bound to create controversies. The EU’s move has drawn sharp reactions from India, Africa and others using vaccines missing from the Green Pass list.
EU’s insistence on specific vaccines for incoming travellers is similar to China’s decision to allow recipients of Chinese vaccines. Such vaccine nationalism is dangerous. It can establish a trend where global travel gets chopped into blocs depending on vaccines that countries pick. Vaccine preferences would very likely be geopolitical. A geopolitical listing of vaccines would mess up global movement. Vaccinated travellers would be forced to choose destinations as per vaccine received. Those required to travel widely might be forced to take multiple vaccines. While this might be good news for vaccine makers, it would be a nightmare for hapless travellers!
A simple solution for countries could be to allow travel on the basis of all vaccines approved by the WHO. The list will widen over time, enabling resumption of travel on a large scale.
That Germany, Switzerland, Greece, Iceland, Austria and Slovenia,a mong others, have decided to allow Covishield shows their eagerness to accept more vaccines and expand travel. Ultimately, however, countries need to move on from vaccine-based travel permits to a far more accommodating strategy. In this respect, rather than insisting on incomers to be vaccinated, the focus should shift to vaccinating domestic populations. Why should countries with large vaccinated domestic populations insist on vaccination of incoming travellers? The insistence runs counter to the logic of the vaccinated being secure, or facing limited contracting infections.
Confidence in vaccines should provide countries with enough confidence to let people in without insisting on vaccine certificates. A multi-country initiative, ideally pursued by the G20, would be the best platform for a global decision on accepting a wide range of vaccines for letting in people. This can mature into allowing movement without needing proof of vaccination.
What about Covid tests and isolations? It is important for destination countries to realise that insisting on on-arrival tests and out-of-pocket quarantine is unsustainable over time. Travel, particularly leisure travel, can’t resume under such conditions. If destination countries are well-vaccinated, as also airline-, rail- and liner-staff, then the insistence on pre- and post-arrival pandemic checks is unnecessary.
If, over time, countries that have vaccinated most of their people can do away with the preventive border measures and liberalise travelling, then problems of selective vaccine-base travel can be overcome.
The author is Senior research fellow and research lead (trade and economics), Institute of South Asian Studies, NUS
Views are personal