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How Vaccine Passports Contribute to Global Inequality
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How Vaccine Passports Contribute to Global Inequality

An EU plan would likely cut off travel from developing nations where vaccine distribution is lagging or nonexistent.

A year into the coronavirus pandemic, cases are going down globally and vaccinations are ramping up. But we’re not in the clear yet, and it will take a while to get enough people vaccinated. What can we do to let people enjoy the activities they’ve been missing out on while still keeping vulnerable people safe and continuing to reduce the spread? In many places, talks about a potential “vaccine passport” have become more prominent. While such passports could indeed increase freedom of movement, they come with many downsides. 

In the European Union, leaders are currently discussing a “Digital Green Certificate.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that this form of identification “is to ensure that where people can enjoy free movement without a risk to public health, they should be able to do so.” The certificate would be an optional substitute to submitting to a COVID test for the right to move within the EU’s internal travel area, as European countries don’t mandate vaccination. However, since Europe has—with a few exceptions—continuously banned non-EU citizens from other countries from entering the continent, it is likely for this certificate to be mandatory for future entries.

EU leaders say that individual member states could require domestic use of the pass, meaning that it could also be used as an entry barrier for concerts, bars, and other social gathering places, but this proposal faces an uphill battle. French President Emmanuel Macron says that he will not accept a system that grants special rights to those vaccinated, but his opposition is also vague, and mostly related to the fact that the French are traditionally skeptical toward vaccination.

Meanwhile, as developed nations ponder the option of vaccine passports, Africa is not even close to having a vaccination rate of 1 percent, with many individual African countries ranking so low that they don’t even show up in tools tracking global vaccinations. According to the BBC, Tanzania and Madagascar have claimed that they have no existing plans for acquiring vaccines, while Burundi says it does not need vaccines. The hardships relating to coronavirus in these countries are grossly underreported, mostly due to a lack of official statistics. It is true that Africa has seen less severe effects of COVID-19 because of its young population, but elderly people who are affected suffer from poorly equipped health systems.

The EU’s “Everything but Arms” trade agreement with most African countries is a relief for these developing nations, but business owners seeking to export still face challenges, which often can only be resolved in person. Applying for licenses, filing paperwork with legal teams, meeting up with business partners to sort out specifics: as much as we have all learned that doing business over Zoom is excruciating, it is even worse if you’re trying to get your feet off the ground in a country like the Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Students from developing nations will also be affected, as they try to study abroad, and sign up in time for upcoming semesters, or meet for an in-person interview for internships.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the European Union vehemently opposed the “America First” philosophy of the United States. Bans on travelers from China, then European travelers, were seen as reactionary. “The Coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent, and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action,” said von der Leyen and EU Council president Charles Michel. The EU also sounded similar on vaccines, calling for global rather than local decision-making.

However, since the breakthrough of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, Europe has changed its tune. Commissioner for Health Stella Kyriakides explains in a European Commission press release: “The pandemic is having devastating effects in Europe and all around the world. Protecting the health of our citizens remains our utmost priority, and we must put in place the necessary measures to ensure we achieve this. This transparency and authorisation mechanism is temporary, and we will of course continue to uphold our commitments towards low and middle income countries.”

At the same time that the EU is considering a vaccine passport and paying lip service to the needs of other countries, however, it is taking steps that will reduce access to vaccines for those same countries. After a battle with AstraZeneca over a vaccine production shortfall, the European Commission has imposed a mechanism whereby EU countries will be able to block vaccine exports if the EU’s own orders have not yet been filled. Under this scheme, the EU will instruct its customs authorities to block vaccine exports unless accompanied by prior authorization. This will allow the EU to give priority to shipments to its own countries before authorizing exports. The legality of this measure is still uncertain, and could even lead to a long legal battle. In practice, such export bans have already taken place.

For all its talk about help for developing nations, little is being done. With the additional layer of a vaccine passport, developed countries will only add to global inequality. For countries in Africa, South America, or large parts of Asia, access to vaccines is very restricted. No wonder that regulators including the FDA are on alert for trade in fake COVID-19 vaccines. 

An even greater unknown for many countries who have just started vaccinating is the choice of vaccine. Will the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine or the Russian Sputnik V be regarded as a valid travel passport, even if European or American regulators haven’t approved them for local use? While caring about their own citizens for valid reasons, developed nations forget about the uncertainty they create for those who are less fortunate.

International travel, particularly for business purposes, is essential for trade and entrepreneurship. It isn’t just an accessory for many countries, it is an essential factor for economic survival. Instead of maintaining a COVID-19 testing regime for international travelers, Europe is more occupied with keeping its own fortress intact.