Apart from fanning vaccine nationalism, this will also exacerbate the inequality between nations in terms of access to vaccine
Using vaccine passports for recommencing global travel is becoming a popular idea with vaccinations progressing worldwide. The beleaguered global travel industry is keenly awaiting announcements by countries in this regard. While the idea is gathering support, vaccine passports have implications that need to be studied carefully.
International travel, in the post-Covid-19 world, is taking place under strict protocols. Specific protocols vary between countries. But a common requirement for travellers is production of evidence certifying them as Covid-free. This needs travellers to be tested before boarding a flight, or a vessel, usually within 72 hours. Notwithstanding such certificates, many countries require incoming travellers to stay isolated upon arrival, and get tested afresh, before allowing them to move out. Passengers, therefore, need to be tested twice—pre- and post-arrival—entailing not just inconvenience, but also additional testing costs. Such costs are compounded by the living expenses for self-isolation in dedicated facilities. For short-term travellers, these costs double, as they are incurred on both onward and return journeys within a brief period.
Might these conditions improve if vaccines are taken as ‘safe’ grounds for allowing travel? On the surface, the prospects look good. However, there are several complications.
From the point of view of destination countries, incoming travellers should be treated as ‘safe’ if they produce Covid-free medical certificates before travel or on arrival. With such certificates, they shouldn’t be required to provide further proof of vaccination. However, countries appear to be having issues in trusting certificates from other countries. The lack of trust is requiring travellers to be tested again on arrival. The same lack of trust might lead to demand for further proof of vaccination. The problem can be avoided if medical certificates are mutually recognised between countries. This is possible if countries come to recognise a group of internationally-accredited testing laboratories and accept certificates produced by incoming travellers from these laboratories.
The issue of trust is critical for vaccines as well. Lack of trust might make some countries doubt vaccination evidence produced by travellers from specific countries. This would again force incoming travellers into isolation upon arrival and subject them to further local protocols even if they are vaccinated. Travellers from ‘untrustworthy’ countries might be insisted to undergo pre-departure Covid-19 tests, even if they are already vaccinated.
Vaccine passports can also encourage vaccine nationalism. Different countries are administering different vaccines. As of now, there are 13 vaccines that have been approved for public use. Within a year, many more vaccines are likely to arrive. More than 80 vaccines are in various stages of clinical trials. With so many vaccines expected, there’s going to be administrative complications in promoting vaccine-based travel, if countries insist on allowing travellers inoculated with ‘specific’ vaccines.
The possibility of countries preferring some vaccines over others can hardly be overlooked. A recent communication from various Chinese embassies specifying easier entry conditions into the mainland for foreigners having received Chinese-made vaccines has sparked off vaccine nationalism fears. Such a communication by China might encourage other countries, particularly those with whom China’s ties are strained, to insist on non-Chinese vaccines for incoming travellers. This might set off a critical vaccine divide, with vaccines determining the countries where people would be able to travel. The implications would be serious for travellers and the travel industry. Travellers in their countries of residence are unlikely to be able to choose vaccines, till large number of vaccines become available for public use in local markets. Even then, travellers can’t be expected to get multiple shots as dictated by their destinations. For the travel industry, particularly airlines, shippers and tour operators, the administrative challenge of aligning with vaccine requirements of various destinations would mean huge increase in paperwork and procedures.
The other serious problem with vaccine-based travel arrangements is sharing of health data. If countries insist on not just proof of vaccination, but also medical histories of travellers, the latter might be required to share sensitive personal information. Much of individual health data is considered sensitive by most countries and might not be possible to be shared cross-border.
Any decision to make vaccines central to recovery of global travel must not be taken in haste. It is best not to make international travel conditional on vaccines, except for travellers with serious co-morbidities. Since vaccination is voluntary across the world, making it an essential condition for travel is unfair for those who can’t be vaccinated for health and cultural reasons, or personal choice. Furthermore, making vaccines the key enabler of global travel is particularly unfair for countries that will require several months to obtain enough vaccines for inoculating their populations. Vaccine-based travel will then be confined to a limited number of countries. These would be those with more resources and capacities to fund and administer vaccines and start travelling. The global community can certainly do better than encouraging more inequality in a world struggling to come to terms with distresses inflicted by Covid-19.
The author is Senior research fellow and research lead (trade and economics), Institute of South Asian Studies, NUS
Views are personal