Now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that people who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 can shed their masks, there are obvious questions: How do you verify that people are vaccinated? Especially in situations in which some people can’t get vaccinated, including young children, or may remain vulnerable after, like some immunocompromised people, how can we guarantee they’re safe from the unmasked as mandates disappear?
Unlike many of the challenges we’ve faced with Covid-19 in the past year, there’s a clear answer: vaccine passports. Under this system, vaccinated people could provide proof of inoculation to unlock privileges they didn’t have before, like going into a grocery store without a mask or patronizing a restaurant with no social distancing requirements.
Other countries have successfully adopted this strategy. In Israel, which has the world’s most advanced vaccination campaign, a system of “Green Passes” has let the country almost fully reopen while seeing daily new Covid-19 cases drop by more than 95 percent and daily deaths nearly eliminated.
But America has already failed in adopting anything like the Israeli system, with little sign that will change. The CDC-stamped cards people get with their shots are easily copied or forged. President Joe Biden’s administration has rejected calls to adopt nationwide vaccine passports, instead leaving the issue to the private sector. Some states have already moved to ban the use of vaccine passports, blocking government entities — or, in Florida, even private businesses — from asking for proof of vaccination. Meanwhile, some major retailers are lifting mask mandates for those who are vaccinated largely by relying on an honor system.
Legitimate questions exist about how a vaccine passport would work in the US, but it’s worth figuring them out given what’s at stake: a quicker, safer path back to pre-pandemic normal. By giving up on the idea entirely, America is repeating one of its core mistakes of the pandemic — opting for short-term freedom from Covid-related precautions over longer-term freedom from the virus.
The case against vaccine passports typically comes down to a narrow interpretation of freedom. People should be able to make their own choices, the thinking goes, about whether they get vaccinated, and no one should try to coerce them to get the shot. And even if someone does get vaccinated, that’s a private matter that shouldn’t be used by others to limit what a person can do.
But in a longer-term view, vaccine passports actually unlock more freedom — by safely and quickly returning to that pre-pandemic normal.
Over the past year of the Covid-19 pandemic, much of America demanded 100 percent freedom in the face of the coronavirus, rejecting measures like lockdowns, mask mandates, and test-and-trace that critics claimed violated fundamental rights. So much of the country often got close to 0 percent freedom — as the coronavirus spread and people and businesses closed down, voluntarily or by government order, for their own safety.
“Look at how much freedom people in New Zealand have had over the last year versus how much Americans have had — it’s not even a close call,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told me. “The question that I have raised is, freedom to do what? I think most people care about freedom to live their lives as they wish.”