COVID-19 Vaccine Passports and Fundamental Human Rights - A Fragile Line

Majd Mansour

It has now been over a year since the ‘mystery virus’ that first emerged in Wuhan grappled with the world’s healthcare systems, plunged populations into lockdowns and caused unprecedented socio-economic and health-related issues that will be felt for decades to come. However, the heroic work of scientists and researchers across the world has led to multiple vaccines being developed in record time, finally offering the world a glimmer of light at the end of what has been a winding tunnel. Now, governments worldwide have been forced to confront an intricate moral dilemma: how to go about returning to the pre-pandemic normality without infringing on fundamental rights and liberties of populations already on edge following a strenuous year.


Policy-makers and world leaders have considered the introduction of various types of immunity passports, with nations taking differing approaches as to how such immunity will be measured and on how to navigate such unprecedented waters.


Arguments in favour of immunity passports


  • A chance of normality

Likely the strongest of the arguments in favour of using immunity passports, certificates can be used not only to limit the spread of COVID-19 but also to allow people to return to the freedoms they once enjoyed, freedoms that lockdowns and safety measures severely restricted. They could ensure that mass events such as concerts, festivals and sporting events– seemingly distant memories– can go ahead in a safe and sensible manner.


  • Travel

In order to mitigate the spread of possible vaccine-undermining variants, the airline industry has suffered calamitous consequences, with the UN’s Air Transportation Agency reporting an industry loss of $370bn. Vaccine passports would not only allow people to get back into airports quicker, but could also offer a much-needed boost to one of the industries that have been hit hardest by the deadly virus.


  • An incentive to opt for the vaccine

Vaccine scepticism is at an all-time high, with the issue having been exacerbated owing to the media coverage and reports of rare blood clots from certain vaccines. However, an introduction of Immunity Passports could encourage more of the population to opt for the jab, which is ultimately necessary if we would like to return to normality.


Arguments against Immunity Passports


  • Vaccine-undermining variants


Whilst certain nations have been able to steamroll ahead with successful vaccine rollouts, the vast majority of the world has been slowed by a combination of vaccine hoarding, an inadequate supply and intellectual property issues. In fact, according to the anti-poverty organisation ONE, less than 1% of the vaccines currently administered have reached people in low-income countries. Many will argue that it is simply too early to introduce such a radical measure since scientists are still researching whether vaccines successfully reduce transmissions while evaluating the threat that emerging variants pose to vaccine-driven immunity.


  • Discrimination

Articles 1 and 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasises the ideas of equality and freedom from discrimination. However, the introduction of immunity passports could be seen to violate such rights, as those who are vaccinated will be able to access opportunities and events that unvaccinated others may not. This could be seen as heightening societal tensions and could ultimately lead to an Orwellian-like society. 


  • Privacy

Usually, health information including vaccine records are stored by healthcare systems and medical organisations, yet the introduction of these passports would mean that delicate information could be shared with not only the public but other companies as well. It is important to consider how this information may be used and whether it could lead to prejudice and stigmatisation.

It is evident that vaccines are the way out of this seemingly never-ending pandemic, and whilst governments attempt to navigate the intricate balance between ensuring fundamental liberties are protected with saving lives and getting their economies back on their feet, the question begs – just how much personal freedom are people willing to sacrifice in order to accelerate a return to normality?