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Opinion: Vaccine passports are key to combating the fourth wave

While losses in privacy are inevitable, the vaccine certificate can help protect Ontario residents
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The implementation of a vaccine passport is ultimately a bold and proactive step to avoid further reactive closures. CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY
The implementation of a vaccine passport is ultimately a bold and proactive step to avoid further reactive closures. CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY

Starting September 22, proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be required to access certain businesses and settings in Ontario. Led by Premier Doug Ford and his government, the “enhanced COVID-19 vaccine certificate” system will seek to protect Ontario residents from the fourth wave.

For the first month, fully vaccinated citizens must use their vaccine receipt and valid photo identification to enter the areas listed in the new passport mandate, including restaurants, nightclubs, gyms, concerts, and sporting events. After a month, the province will make a shift to QR codes containing similar information already included on vaccination receipts. These QR codes will be accompanied by the release of a verification app that will be able to verify an individual’s vaccination status. 

This enhanced vaccine certificate is meant to be a temporary solution; hence, the duration of its use will heavily depend on the outcome of the fourth wave. 

The implementation of a vaccine passport is ultimately a bold and proactive step to avoid further reactive closures. Not only will a vaccine passport prevent the spread of COVID-19 in highly contagious areas, but it will also be an incentive to get the vaccine. By limiting the use of high-contraction areas to fully vaccinated citizens, the spread of COVID-19 could be dramatically reduced. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mRNA vaccines are effective at reducing the risk of people spreading the virus. Thus, limiting areas of high contagion to those protected under the vaccine can reduce transmissions.

The vaccine passport may also incentivize people who didn’t want to take the vaccine to get the shots. Those who doubt the vaccine’s safety and efficacy may finally take it to gain access to certain places and activities. More vaccinated citizens equals a safer community for everyone.

Although this enhanced vaccine certificate will undoubtedly slow the spread of COVID-19, many experts share concerns over the infringement of movement. In the 19th century, British philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that individuals should be free to live their lives as they see fit, without interference. Hence, unvaccinated people claim that it is an overstep for the government to limit where they can travel. 

However, if one’s autonomous choice poses a health hazard to their neighbors, limiting their movement may be a legitimate strategy for the well-being of those around them. The public health of an entire community is a more important value than the liberty of the unvaccinated. In this sense, vaccine passports are ethical.

Others have shared privacy concerns regarding the release of a verification app. Kerry Bowman, a U of T bioethicist, fears that the vaccine passport would create breaches of privacy for Canadian citizens. Bowman also shared concerns over the storing of sensitive location data. However, these concerns can be dismissed as long as the government takes proper measures to ensure that the vaccine passport is immune to tracking and forgery. 

Vaccine passports would also share one’s vaccination status, information that counts as personal health information, which should be private and confidential. However, the information given in a QR code seems inconsequential, as it would contain only your name and vaccination status. Furthermore, some loss of privacy can be justified for the sake of public safety when millions of lives are at stake. 

The final concern cited by opposers of the vaccine passport is the worry of discrimination. This concern, backed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, builds on fears that the vaccine passport would create a “two-tier” society, creating tension between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. According to a CBC article, many people even believe that the discrimination faced by the unvaccinated would be comparable to discrimination based on race, religion, or ethnicity. 

However, this is hardly a concrete argument. ‘Discrimination’ refers to the unfair treatment towards someone based on uncontrollable characteristics of race, sex, belief, identity, religion, or disability. These protected characteristics cannot be equated with a choice over a vaccine. Further, Vardit Ravitsky, a bioethicist at the University of Montréal, pointed out that the restrictions are temporary and specific to a place or activity. Meticulously planned restrictions do not seek to discriminate — rather, they simply seek to control a global pandemic.

A vaccine passport may introduce risks to freedoms of movement and privacy. However, patient and careful implementation of a vaccine certificate can help reduce these risks while also limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Vincent Zhang is a second-year financial economics student at Innis College.