Credit: GG Illustrator AJ Duncan (@ajc.illustrates)

Do vaccines set you free?

By Erin Rizzato Devlin

Taking a look at the Covid-19 passport debate.

In the chaos of the past year, the extensive outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic have somehow simultaneously brought humanity together and divided us as we’ve been forced to face the contingent dangers of our frailty. As we seem to be reaching the hopeful horizon of widespread vaccinations, which aims to put an end to the wild ride of this pandemic, the debate seems to become more exacerbated and divided between those who support or reject this solution. There are ongoing discussions about airlines initiating “Covid-19 passports”, which grant them the right to refuse passengers who have not been vaccinated, entangling us in more precautionary bureaucracies to render international travel safer. This, however, may come at the cost of having to adjust our ordinary conception of important civil rights and liberties.

Amongst the incredible amount of information with which we are inundated, I believe it is crucial not only to consider facts of both scientific and moral relevance, but also what moves us into making a decision in the first place. In fact, in a world that’s drowning in information yet starving for knowledge, it’s possible for anyone to find substantial arguments both for and against the same thing. The problem, however, is that we are always searching for what we wish to hear and what already supports our beliefs. Perhaps, then, real wisdom lies in knowing how to interpret and understand the information we find, critique who is feeding us such information and for what purpose, and subject information to the assessment of our critical reason, rather than the vulgarity of merely reinforcing and immunising one’s opinion.

While the pro-vaccine wing will argue that our technocratic world, along with the disinterested spirit of the international scientific community, can justify the rapid development of a solution, the anti-vaccine opponents will invoke the political hands behind this that could be maliciously handing us a poisoned apple. An almost religious trust in the powers of science is therefore balanced against the suspicion that we may be hostages of political interests. However, what may be seen as an irrational response against Covid-19 passports should not be taken lightly: the hypothetical outcomes of limiting people’s choices in terms of travel and social interactions may involve the revision of what has become a fundamental right to freedom of movement in our lifestyles. 

In the desperate and necessary attempt to mitigate the spread of the virus, the introduction of new restrictions on people’s actions and possibilities may have an important impact on society at large which cannot be ignored. Beyond the polarities of those who merely rely on trust or scepticism, the vaccination debate brings us to question and rethink not only the direct implications of creating an “immunity passport”, but also what we fundamentally believe about human rights and the role of society in our individual lives. The issue is not restricted to whether one’s fundamental liberty of movement (found in article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) should be determined by a medical condition. Rather, it raises the question of whether we are actually free, or if we are merely bound to our society by links of collective responsibility which surpass the individual in importance. Is a vaccination a moral duty we owe to our society? Would a Covid-19 passport be democratically legitimate?

When faced with this sort of issue, we must consider not only how effective these would be, but also if they would work in the right way and for the right purposes. It is perfectly plausible that a passport for vaccines may be practically successful, but it still could be morally or politically objectionable to employ it for reasons which are not related to its effectiveness. In this sense, the dangers of capillary information and control which may allow governments or other bodies to engage in exclusionary behaviours or mass surveillance, could in effect be a problem if we are not prepared to discuss and define the conditions of this issue. Furthermore, we must also consider that risks will be present nonetheless, such as how the distribution of Covid-19 passports may create profound disparities, privileging people in the western world rather than poorer regions. Nonetheless, the decision not to be vaccinated may even be considered as disrespectful towards the wider community, especially considering the safety and wellbeing of those who are more vulnerable or unable to get a vaccine due to particular health conditions.

The prioritisation of safety and good outcomes in the times of a pandemic are essential, but still an emergency does not entail that everything goes. In constantly evolving circumstances, we must be open to redefine the ways in which we relate not only to medicine and technological progress, but also to cosmopolitan movement and society. This means we should be prepared to start choosing differently due to changes in our political and moral landscapes: it is not only about what we choose, but also how we make that choice.Considering the claim of general science that it is not the vaccine that is effective, but the vaccination programme, we should be thinking fast. Our efforts should be focused on protecting or adapting the fundamental rights of humans in the most democratic way possible. Our freedom to choose always entails the great responsibility to choose in the best possible way, especially in the light of our collective and interrelated lives. Our actions must not be separated from their responsibility; as Portuguese writer José Saramago once stated: “Without responsibility, we don’t even deserve to exist.”


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