As borders around the world continue to flip-flop in the face of the pandemic, the travel & tourism industry is putting its collective force behind health passports in a bid to revive travel. Simply put, health passports would allow the industry to assess travelers based on their recently uploaded health and vaccination status, particularly pertaining to COVID-19.
While this may sound practical, there are various challenges ahead. Among these is a globally supported standard framework for health passports, digitized healthcare networks, and above all the ability to eliminate traveler discrimination based on their health status, and the protection and privacy of personally identifiable information.
A Myriad Queue
Health passports are meant to help travelers move hassle-free between destinations without having to carry a set of medical documents, especially the COVID-19 vaccination certificate. By using health passports to document recent – and mandatory – health information, travelers can ensure that they are complying with the destinations’ entry requirements to minimize scrutiny and limit the chances of new community transmissions.
However, for all the valid benefits of health passports, there is also a great deal of underlying discrimination it could carry along.
Iceland was the first European nation to issue vaccine certificates in late January 2021. A series of countries have followed the vaccine certification wave, including Greece which unveiled a digital vaccination certificate for those who have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Since Israel has been leading the charge in getting majority of its denizens vaccinated, it is also a trend-setter in what travel bubbles of tomorrow could look like, bilateral or multi-lateral, once a critical level of its population is vaccinated.
Alongside these countries, are myriad others where vaccines haven’t reached yet. As of early March, just 66.7 million – or less than 1% – of the global population were fully vaccinated, thus the place of the world one resides in has a huge part to play in attaining these vaccine certificates. It is evidently clear that the lack of vaccination certificates will marginalize those unable to receive the COVID-19 jab, leading to concerns like exclusion and discrimination. As a consequence, a sizable global population will not be able to prove their vaccination status, and thus may face limitations of movement, including traveling.
Likewise, the younger population are last in the totem pole of the vaccination drive, therefore eliminating a significant demand pocket from the equation. Yet another range of people include those with pre-existing medical conditions; reservations regarding the current vaccines to anti-vaxxers and everybody in between. This would leave many more behind in getting the health passport.
As the bridge between the vaccinated and non-vaccinated widens, so will the potential threat of fake vaccine certificates. We already have countless scenarios of travelers submitting fake documentation to not just travel but also bypass quarantines. These pose real threat to travelers onboard the same flight and to local transmissions at destinations.
The Chain Reaction
Despite the roll–out of vaccines coming into play, the path to progression looks rather ambiguous as it does not guarantee to contain transmission. The current batch of vaccines may not be completely effective against other emerging mutations. Amid the lack of clarity or evidence pertaining to the long-term effect of the virus and its mutations, the validity of a health passport and future risk of transmission is further put into question. This is among the reasons why both France and Britain have taken back seats on the roll-out of respective health passports.
On the contrary, the best estimate yet of containing transmission is in Israel with a 40% reduction in transmission with a 60% vaccine roll-out. Israeli Ministry of Health (MoH) figures reveal 531 people over the age of 60, out of almost 750,000 fully vaccinated, tested positive for coronavirus.
Health passports based purely on vaccination certificates effectively divides the world between haves and have–nots, based on the affordability, accessibility, health status, and the free will to vaccinate or not. Inevitably, the have–nots will lose their right to travel freely in the short to medium-term.
The travel and tourism industry needs fewer knee-jerk mechanisms to restart travel. The need of the hour is thought-through and universally accepted processes or solutions. Among them is the creation of a decentralized network between governments, health passports solutions, and related healthcare and technology providers to share encrypted traveler information pertaining to COVID-19 vaccination and RT-PCR tests or equivalent to ensure diligent pre-screening and authentication of travelers before every trip.
It seems inevitable that health passport will act as a prerequisite medium if people are to ever travel again. However, while they may seem unavoidable, this should not prevent the ongoing debate on how the data provided is used and raises the concern of whether the personal information granted will be not misused, shared or stolen, including the government, insurance companies and others.
About the Author
Viren Jain is the Co-Founder and CEO of Safe Travel Barometer. Its core solution is Traveler Health Screening, an AI-based rules engine which enables suppliers to pre-screen travelers based on health documentation, recent travel history, quarantine requirements, etc. to ensure compliance at the arrival destination.
Traveler Health Screening is pursuing a backward integration of the travel-health space by developing an open framework to work alongside governments, industry associations, health registries and health passport services.