The Nuisance of Vaccination Passports

May 5, 2021 Updated: May 5, 2021


Vaccination passports certify that holders are immune from the virus causing COVID-19 through vaccination, or the presence of antibodies caused by earlier infection. These passports are widely expected to ease and speed the transition from the current pandemic to normal personal and economic lives but have encountered some public and political opposition.

There’s no doubt that presently the number of Canadians eligible to receive the passport is large. On May 3, 2021, 12.9 million Canadians had been immunized and 1.14 million had recovered from the illness. Their numbers are growing rapidly with new vaccinations and recoveries.

The problem with current discussions about the merit of the passports is that there’s no single, detailed model of how a passport system would operate. As a result, much controversy and opposition is based on features that may or may not be adopted but which could be avoided by considering this simple model.

Passport holders have access to the myriad public and commercial facilities that make up modern life without having to obey COVID control protocols imposed by health authorities. Importantly, they can travel abroad freely to countries that accept the passports as evidence of their immunity. The personal, economic, and social benefits brought by this feature are obvious.

The most fundamental criticism of the system arises from the concern that businesses will decide to serve only passport holders and thus cause other Canadians to suffer systemic discrimination akin to that suffered by other minorities whose conditions presently are such a great political issue.

Most Canadians who suffer would be waiting to be vaccinated. A small number could not be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons. An unknown number would refuse to be vaccinated because they distrust the health care system or government policies generally.

How realistic is the concern that businesses will serve only passport holders?

For one, it’s illegal for Canadian businesses to refuse service to customers.

More important is that the profit motive will lead businesses to deal with all-comers. Non-passport holders will bring sales, and businesses will want to retain their good will that will bring them back when the pandemic is over. Customers with and without passports can be served in two different sections of restaurants, theaters, and recreation facilities with health protocols applied in only one of them.

Not all businesses can operate with two sections serving the two different groups of customers. For example, cruise ship lines that already have announced they will serve only passengers with proof of immunity, can’t effectively operate separate sections.

However, if existing laws and the profit motive don’t work as expected, Fairness Warriors can demand the adoption of regulation preventing it, which is likely to fall on sympathetic ears in Canadian governments.

Opposition to vaccination passports also comes from Freedom Warriors, who believe that they violate basic human rights to privacy and unnecessarily strengthen the power of the state. Acting on this view, the governors of Florida and Texas already have signed legislation prohibiting the public and private issue of any such passports.

This policy is unlikely to gain significant support from Canadians who have much greater faith in government than most Americans. Moreover, the passports are just like other government-issued identification documents such as drivers’ licenses and travel passports as well as the documents showing vaccination against yellow fever and other communicable diseases that were used widely in the past. They involve an invasion of privacy but are used because they bring public benefits greater than costs.

Some opposition to the introduction of the passport system arises from fears that it leads to unauthorized access to medical information and the development of a black market in counterfeit passports, which apparently already operates on the dark web.

These problems can be avoided by attaching modules to existing government systems that electronically store private tax, social security, and health care information and protect it with pervasive safety protocols. These modules would store information about the vaccination status of individuals, including their pictures, which can be accessed by passport holders using either mobile phones or paper documents showing a QR code readable by ubiquitous electronic scanners.

The government of Israel already successfully operates a vaccination passport system, the U.K. is eying the introduction of one by June 28, and several countries have expressed their intention to recognize it. The government of Canada needs to do the same promptly and avoid the fiasco that marked its vaccination efforts.

Herbert G. Grubel is professor of economics (emeritus) at Simon Fraser University.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.