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The World Eyes ‘Health Passports’

From digital certificates to “health passports”, countries and airlines across the globe are hoping to relaunch travel by letting people prove their Covid-free status. But with patchy vaccine access around the world and mounting concerns over data privacy, questions are swirling about how the measures will work in practice.

Image - People present their coronavirus vaccination certificate or 'green badge' at the entrance of a music concert in Tel Aviv, 24 February 2021.

Abir Sultan/EPA/EFE via Euractive news

Most programmes under development are geared towards facilitating travel and come in the form of smartphone apps with varying criteria for a clean bill of health. Vaccine passports, for example, are a popular way to approach proof of immunity with jab rollouts underway across the globe. There are also apps that accept positive antibody tests as proof of immunity for those who have had the virus and recovered.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently suggested yet another, more localised form of Covid-free permission slip: the so-called “health pass”.

This certification would only be valid within France’s borders but would allow a fully vaccinated person to, for example, eat in restaurants and attend certain events.

But the World Health Organization has warned that there is no evidence to show that recovered Covid sufferers with antibodies are protected from a second infection.

This week China launched a digital health certificate for its 1.3 billion citizens that shows the holder’s vaccine status and virus test results.

Greece and Cyprus have vaccination passports specifically for travel to and from Israel, which has fully vaccinated 44 percent of its population.

Denmark and Sweden are also looking to launch health passports soon, with the European Union promising to propose a “green pass” to ease movement within the entire Union despite resistance from France and Germany.

Is it an official travel document? No, and there is currently no effort underway to establish a required document to travel between countries.

The Chinese health passport is an attempt to make it easier for its citizens to travel abroad, but without recognition from other countries it is of little use.

For the moment, the applications are meant to facilitate various health checks still in place at different borders, with airlines among major proponents.

Through several of its member carriers, the International Air Transport Association has been offering a digital pass allowing passengers to easily prove their health status before boarding.

Can we make it official? Making health passports stricter or requiring them for travel could invite legal challenges. A major worry is that banning unvaccinated people from travelling would exacerbate inequality since access to jabs is far from universal. There are also concerns over how applications would access users’ personal data.

In France, there is already an official database of citizens who have been vaccinated against Covid-19, approved by the country’s privacy watchdog. However, the body has warned it will re-examine the issue should the database be put to use in the context of a health passport.

China has launched a health certificate programme for domestic travellers, leading the world in plans for so-called virus passports.

Chinese virus passport @shen_shiwei Twitter

The digital certificate, which shows a user’s vaccination status and virus test results, is available for Chinese citizens via a programme on Chinese social media platform WeChat that was launched on Monday (8 March). The certificate is being rolled out “to help promote world economic recovery and facilitate cross-border travel,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.

However the international health certificate is currently only available for use by Chinese citizens and it is not yet mandatory. The certificate, which is also available in paper form, is thought to be the world’s first known “virus passport”.

The United States and Britain are among countries currently considering implementing similar permits. The European Union is also working on a vaccine “green pass” that would allow citizens to travel between member countries and abroad.

China’s programme includes an encrypted QR code that allows each country to obtain a travellers’ health information, state media agency Xinhua reported Monday. 'QR health codes' within WeChat and other Chinese smartphone apps are already required to gain entry to domestic transport and many public spaces in China.

The apps track a user’s location and produce a “green” code — synonymous with good health — if a user has not been in close contact with a confirmed case or has not travelled to a virus hotspot. But the system has sparked privacy concerns and fears it marks an expansion of government surveillance.

KJM Today Opinion

It is no real surprise that governments around the world are pursuing the idea of extra identification for ordinary people using health as a reason for doing so.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen panic grip world leaders and provide a golden opportunity to seize more power and exercise extra control over previously free people. As has already been noted elsewhere on KJM Today, every restrictive practice ever placed upon ordinary citizens is always preceded by the words, 'For Your Safety'.

COVID-19 is not a hoax, it does exist. But it is also a disease that (again as has been noted elsewhere on KJM Today) is not a fatal condition for most people. Using it as an excuse to place further curbs and additional identity requirements upon everybody is morally bankrupt.


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