DANIEL VAUGHAN: Vaccination cards could unintentionally divide society

American capitalism and exceptionalism have saved the day when it comes to the novel coronavirus. So far, we have access to two vaccines with more, potentially, on the way. And that’s not counting all the therapeutics, medical equipment, and protective gear we’ve manufactured along the way. Light is at the end of the tunnel.

There are some ethical concerns we need to discuss as we enter this last stretch, however.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations require two doses, but not at the same time. 

In an interview with NPR, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, Operation Warp Speed’s chief adviser, said, “It will be very important…for all Americans who get the Moderna or the Pfizer vaccine to have their first vaccine dose and then come back either three or four weeks later to get their second vaccine dose, to complete the immunization schedule.”

Naturally, the federal government is concerned that people will only get the first dose of the vaccine and forget to return for the second dose. To that end, “the U.S. government says it will issue a vaccine card and use other tools to help people follow through with their immunizations,” according to NPR.

By themselves, vaccine cards are a means of helping ensure people remember to get that second dose. All the government wants to do is remind people to follow through on their vaccines to help create herd immunity.

Using a vaccination card or any other tool to achieve this end is a good thing. It’s also good that the federal government is trying to think ahead and overcome these natural obstacles.

The vaccination card isn’t the problem. The real issue is what private companies will do with this information.

Take the airline industry, for example. Airlines have been hammered by the virus, losing both vacationers and business travelers. Ending the virus and assuring passengers that it’s safe to fly is the most critical factor for them for moving forward. The Hill reports:

Industry leaders are coordinating their efforts to create a digital passport that would say whether a passenger has been vaccinated for COVID-19. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced this week it is in the final phase of development for what it hopes will be universally accepted documentation that in turn could boost confidence among wary travelers. The digital health pass would include a passenger’s testing and vaccine information and would manage and verify information among governments, airlines, laboratories and travelers.

There are several ways to accomplish this kind of digital passport for flying. Passengers could provide a standardized test result, results from an antibody test, or something else entirely. But the single unifying document for most people is going to be that vaccination card. It will be an official document issued by the federal government to everyone getting a vaccination.

These kinds of requirements aren’t government-mandated, of course. This is a private industry move. As Fox News notes, “No governments have enforced a requirement for travelers to get vaccinated before entering another country.” These digital passports are a creation of the private market endeavoring to protect both customers and employees.

And airlines aren’t alone here. Billboard and other sources have reported that Ticketmaster has had internal discussions about requiring vaccinations or a negative test to attend events like concerts. And if not Ticketmaster, arenas — or the artists themselves — could ask for it before allowing fans.

The concern is real, as are the attempts to fix the problem. These industries are desperate to reopen safely for everyone. The longer the virus rages, the harder it is for these industries to survive long-term. Market incentives demand these businesses come up with a solution.

The other side of this coin is that conceiving privately designed passports, controlling who can and cannot access or use certain areas of the economy, will produce a stratified culture. While the federal government undoubtedly has a goal of getting anyone a vaccination who wants it, we’ve seen in this pandemic there are class and cultural divides in who feels the worst impacts of the virus.

Encouraging the use of vaccination passports will exacerbate this divide and create those perceived as the “clean” and the “unclean.” And that cultural status will be based solely on whether or not you have that vaccination card.

We can hope the divide doesn’t last, and we can overcome it quickly. But even the best-laid plans, as this pandemic has taught, will fall short.

To that end, state governments should consider passing legislation to prevent discrimination based on having the virus, or discrimination based on whether or not a person has a vaccination card.

This kind of legislation isn’t aimed at discouraging people from getting a vaccination. Every effort should be made to encourage people to vaccinations. The faster we hit herd immunity, the swifter we can turn the chapter on this point in history.

But we should stay alert to how this new answer to the coronavirus vaccine could, unintentionally, divide our country even further. It might not show up immediately, but the impacts of being refused service solely because you lack the capacity to get a vaccine could have long-term consequences, as could the effects of being one of the people who had the virus, whether with symptoms or not. Or maybe you’re the kind of person who can’t get a vaccination because your body chemistry doesn’t allow it.

Whatever the reason, avoiding a more divided, stratified culture should be a priority for policy-makers. This issue isn’t something “science” can answer. It takes the wisdom of political leadership. I hope they’re paying attention.