For the world to attain some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy, people will need to start criss-crossing national borders again. Should ‘No vax, no visa’ policies be adopted by various countries, we will need proper certificates of vaccination—or ‘vax passports’—to get past immigration checks. Though international traffic remains sparse, kept within air bubbles by some and often confined to special cases, it is not premature to push for global talks on a good covid-era travel regime. On Monday, India’s government unveiled a facility for out-bound Indians that could act as a basis for vax-certified tours. Aimed at students of foreign institutions, seekers/holders of overseas jobs and participants in the Tokyo Olympics, the Centre will tweak its CoWin app’s vax interface to grant these eligible groups a shorter schedule for Covishield’s twin doses than its 84-day-gap stipulation, enabling them to depart on time, and also let them link their vaccine certificates online with their passport details, creating a database that can be enlarged for future use.
This move was made in response to a demand from citizens who need to prove their immunity status. Many American universities have asked their students to get vaccinated before they reach campus for fall semester this September. The Olympic Games due next month are under pressure to impose a vax bar for athletes, just like some corporate offices do. Most border posts do not ask for vax passports, so far, but we face a jumble of barriers instead. Indian visitors are barred by the ‘red list’ of countries like the US and UK. The EU plans to ease its curbs on entry from “safe” countries and for the fully-jabbed from elsewhere. Even air carriers have mulled health credentials as a filter for flying, though chiefly to signal passenger safety and revive their battered business, it would seem. The International Air Transport Association, which represents about 300 airlines, proposed a ‘travel pass’ for that purpose last year. As covid risks decline and the world gingerly opens up its gateways further, inoculation could well become a must-have to enter another country.
Resistance to the idea of vax passports is low key, but it could well rise. Some argue that it is deeply inequitable, as everyone must have the liberty to refuse a jab without being shut out for doing so. Not everyone can get jabbed either, as susceptibility to side-effects could vary, and no democracy can enforce it by law. Nor do we know whether pre-teens can safely be inoculated, let alone infants. Indeed, there exist good reasons to keep vaccination voluntary. Yet, practical worries of covid exposure will likely tip governments in favour of vax passports, and so we must prepare for them. What the world needs, however, is a common template for all. Efforts to forge a global consensus on it must start soon. Vaccines approved by the World Health Organization ought to make the cut right off. Covishield already has approval, but since our other mainstay, Covaxin, is yet to get it, Indian travellers should be thankful for CoWin’s move to expedite jabs of the former. While at it, we must also manage the mapping of our vax data onto passports with sufficient finesse to enable a digital migration to, say, a well-secured blockchain of vaccine verification that global authorities could access. The maze of arbitrary barricades that we currently suffer needs to be replaced by an orderly system that maximizes movement at minimal covid risk. As an agreement could take time, our diplomats should put this high up on their agenda.
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