The Corner

Health Care

The Use and Abuse of Vaccine Passports

Michael Brendan Dougherty argues that “vaccine passports” are a bad idea. I think it rather depends upon the uses to which they are put — but it is also a bit late in the process to try to introduce them.

Should we give preferential treatment to people who can prove they have been vaccinated, or restrict those who cannot? Michael’s first-order argument is, essentially, that we should not punish people who are not vaccinated; his second-order argument is that creating a two-tiered system even for purposes of positive incentives for individuals will reduce institutional incentives to reopen the country completely, because it places institutions in a position of power and intrusion that they will be loath to relinquish.

On the first point, I agree: The last thing we need is more restrictions now. But the virtue of a vaccine passport should be that it allows people to do things — say, visiting nursing homes, or entering businesses without a mask — that they would otherwise not be able to do yet. We should have been louder and clearer in getting out the message that getting the shot gets you freer, faster. Our public communications on vaccines have been a mess, and one part is that the public-health community (Dr. Fauci in particular) have been unwilling to encourage people with the carrot of more freedom from lockdowns, masks, and social distancing as an incentive to get vaccinated.

But given the COVID dead-enders and the tendency in some elite quarters to see vaccine passports not as a permission to greater liberty but rather as a stick to wield against refuseniks, there is something to the fear that a two-tiered system will instead exacerbate social conflict and encourage lockdowns to stay in place longer than needed, as a means of retaining social control, while also encouraging people to resist getting vaccinated as a statement against government lists and regimentation. It is a sad commentary on the people who run our government, public health, and major institutions that we need to worry about the former behaving in this way, but it is not a fanciful concern. The latter is, as well, already a familiar pattern.

The practical problem is keeping accurate records of who has been vaccinated. Had we started giving out IDs when the vaccines were rolled out, it would be easier to ensure accurate identification of who has gotten their shots — you show the card, you get in, nobody needs to have your name on a list — but it would be more complicated to do now.

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