Could Covid vaccine passports discriminate against minorities?

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After over a year of Covid-19 dominating our lives, the vaccination programme across the world is finally underway, with more and more people being protected against severe illness every day. Although the vaccine doesn’t stop a person from contracting the disease, it does prevent them from particularly bad and life-threatening reactions to it. This marks a huge step in the global fight against the pandemic and has been a beacon of hope for us all.

The vaccination programme alone cannot ensure a Covid free existence. In order for some semblance of normality, it is vital to ensure that the virus is not being taken across borders and that new strains are not being brought to other countries. Evidence of a negative Covid test – or even proof of vaccination – is the only way to determine that people travelling abroad are not infected, which will in turn keep a handle on the virus, and stop a future global pandemic. One idea is a ‘vaccination passport’, which would prove an individual had been vaccinated against Covid-19 when travelling. Anyone without such a passport would be unable to travel abroad.

However, these potential vaccine passports, which would prove an individual had been vaccinated against Covid-19 when travelling, could unfairly discriminate against ethnic minority groups, experts claim. Dr. Meera Sabaratnam, senior lecturer in International Relations at SOAS, commented that ‘vaccination rates are affected by poverty, experiences of racism in the health service, and the hostile environment for migration, and these inequalities will be reflected in any vaccine passport system. Some of these factors will mean that it is hard to take time off from work or caring responsibilities, or travel to a vaccination centre, and others will mean that there is a lack of trust in the state and public health services, or indeed even a fear of the state itself.’

Therefore, by denying travel to anyone who has not been vaccinated could risk alienating large groups of the population. But how can we both protect ourselves and other countries from further spread of Covid, and ensure we aren’t discriminating againts those who have not, for whatever reason, been vaccinated? ‘Lots of measures could be taken’, says Dr. Sabaratnam,  ‘from guaranteed paid sick leave and leave for vaccination and medical appointments, to more mobile vaccination offerings at a local level and involving more community representatives, to a dismantling of the hostile environment across all public services, and a desegregation of housing and public services.’

However, these measures are no easy task: they require ‘a big shift in the approaches to public policy across the whole political spectrum’, explain Dr. Sabaratnam.

At present, there is no definitive answer on whether vaccine passports will go ahead. If they do, it’s important to think about both sides the coin; their benefits and their potentially negative consequences.

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