Freedom of travel, as 16th century Spanish theologian Francisco de Vitoria famously proclaimed, was a fundamental rule of natural law.
It was with this concept that the Europeans touted and justified their conquests and imperialist practices. And as the colonial era gradually gave way to the age of globalisation, the concept of the freedom to trade and travel endured.
The Covid-19 pandemic, however temporarily, put paid to this thought. As governments became acutely aware that borders cannot safely open up again until vaccines are developed and distributed, the world halted to a standstill. Rightly so, the right to life and health are prioritised over the right to trade and travel.
As Thailand looks for a way to circumvent this and accelerate reopening, it is planning to adopt the use of vaccine passports. Recently, on April 20, the vaccine certificate was published in the Royal Gazette, to be issued by the Department of Disease Control of the Ministry of Public Health.
Thailand’s contemplation is not unique; many other countries – and even private companies – have discussed or already authorised its use for national and/or international travel, including Japan, the United States, and Israel.
France is already trialing a travel pass via an application that shows the results of Covid-19 test; the European Union has proposed the Digital Green Certificate, which is held as proof of vaccination, negative Covid-19 test, or prior recovery. Its rationale? Allow free movement inside the EU, which is one of its core goals.
But vaccine passports cannot be viewed as a panacea to the current problem. The road back to free travel is not without ethical, legal, and technical challenges– some of which seem largely overlooked by officials. As Thailand rolls out the garuda-emblemed document, it should give sufficient weight to some of the complex issues that will appear locally.
Firstly, a preemptive announcement in favour of vaccine passports may unduly exacerbate inequality. This is especially so given the slow rate of vaccinations in Thailand, which has been heavily criticised amid the country’s third wave. It draws an even sharper divide on the existing stratification between the haves and the have-nots, where the “haves” will enjoy more freedoms than the rest of the population. Some people simply do not currently have access to the vaccines, notably marginalised groups and migrant workers. Others, such as pregnant women, children under sixteen, and those with pre-existing medical conditions are advised by the World Health Organization not to be inoculated.
Furthermore, the use of vaccine passports now – when not enough people are vaccinated – does not serve sufficient purpose. If the government does not allow private companies to procure additional vaccines, how can the general population – particularly those who are willing and able to afford vaccines – get timely access?
In the future, vaccine passports can potentially ensure that the Covid-19 vaccination status will affect people from all walks of life and for all activities. It does not only have the power to restrict travel for the uninoculated, but it may also ensure that they are discriminated against by going to everyday places, from restaurants to entertainment venues. More importantly, it may decide who can be denied access to employment due to lack of a vaccine. Given these implications, should the government continue to insist on vaccine passports and/or expand its use, it must first ensure that its priority is that vaccine rollout is equitable and as widespread as possible. Looking forward, it must also ensure that exceptions are made for those who cannot be inoculated.
Secondly, it must be noted that inoculation does not equal zero risk of transmission, thus rendering the use of vaccine passports less useful than perceived. The science behind this has not settled among different vaccines. The Chinese Sinovac vaccine, for example, underperforms in trials and in real life with an efficacy rate barely over the WHO-required standard of 50%. In this view, vaccine passports may not only be inadequate, but they may also lull the public into a false sense of complacency that everyone who is vaccinated is safe. For these ethical and scientific reasons, WHO recommended countries not to adopt the vaccine passport.
Indeed, as the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration has rightly hinted with concern in its briefing last Thursday, vaccines do not provide absolute protection, especially against new strains. This further begs the question, what use can a vaccine passport currently have when the regulations are revised again in order to ensure that everyone must undertake the full fourteen days of quarantine?
This leads to my final point: regulatory differences among different countries will create discrepancies in authorisation and recognition. Thailand only issues vaccine passports for those certified by the WHO or authorised by the Thai Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Thailand’s vaccine passport is intended for those travelling for other countries, but what use will this be if they do not approve of it? As alluded to, vaccines have different efficacy rates, and vaccines that Thailand approves of or will approve of will not necessarily be accepted in all countries. For example, it is hard to imagine that a Thai national inoculated with a Thai FDA-authorised Sputnik V – a likely scenario in the near future – will be given authorised entry into all countries. Given the discrepancies in vaccine authorisation throughout the globe, the efficacy of the document is currently doubtful. A clear international standard, with a universally recognised set of vaccines and a harmonised and protected database, must be set. Until then, the vaccine passport remains little more than a piece of paper.
The idea of vaccine passports should not be entirely disregarded by any means. It offers a means back to travel, tourism, and normal life. But before its use, Thailand must carefully consider the challenges it poses in an inequitable world where the science behind the virus remains limited. Until herd immunity is reached, and until vaccines are standardised, such thorny questions remain.