A year into the United States’ Covid-19 pandemic, there may finally be a light at the end of the tunnel. After 13 months of lockdown, three vaccines promise a more free and open summer than the last. Stores, restaurants, and other public spaces may become safer than they have in months. And in some cases, the only cost of entry is a form proving you are vaccinated.
But the story doesn’t end here. This April, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order banning the use of Covid-19 vaccine passports in the state, citing “privacy and freedom concerns.”¹ In effect, this order prevents government entities from issuing vaccine passports and prohibits any businesses from requiring them. Less than a week later, Texas governor Greg Abbott signed a similar order. He then went on to argue that vaccine efforts must not “tread on Texans’ personal freedoms.”²
However one feels about these orders, their implementation poses a few important questions. No governors have argued vaccines won’t help save lives. But at the same time, an improper implementation could stall our return to normalcy.³ Mass inoculation is a slow process, and vaccinated people may still carry the coronavirus.⁴ While Covid passports raise legitimate concerns, a closer inspection of the facts reveals their necessity. Moreover, it exposes the hypocrisy behind these executive orders.
“Aren’t vaccine passports a form of social gatekeeping?”
After governor Abbott passed his order, he defended it on the grounds that requiring an official form to partake in everyday activities would create “two classes of citizens.”⁵ All things considered, the governor is on to something here. Vaccine availability often belies a class distinction between more or less privileged citizens. That said, it doesn’t manifest in the way Abbott implies.
By way of an example, it’s a point of fact that low-income Americans in rural and urban areas have less access to vaccines.⁶ But even more shockingly, not long after Florida passed its ban, a state commissioner named Vanessa Baugh arranged a vaccination event for the two wealthiest zip codes in her district.⁷ The disparity is clear. Poor Americans, those working dangerous front line jobs, have less access to the vaccine than their rich counterparts.
With this in mind, let’s turn back to Abbott’s claim. Yes, vaccination efforts — and by extension, vaccine passports — reflect inequitable class dynamics. But the document itself doesn’t create inequality. They exclude on a non-arbitrary basis: the preservation of others’ health. That access to a vaccine is limited by income is the real gatekeeping measure, not the passports themselves.
“Don’t I have a right to keep my medical information private?”
Among the critiques leveled at vaccine passports, this point is the most bipartisan. The ACLU, WHO, and EU have all suggested that Covid-19 passports may not provide the most effective path to reopening. Furthermore, they pose reasonable questions about health and privacy. But before jumping to conclusions, we should consider the content of these documents.
First, they don’t divulge entire medical histories or insurance information.⁸ Rather, the form only reveals if one is inoculated or not. More to the point, no one is forcing vaccinated Americans to go out. Attending bars or movie theatres isn’t a requirement for political enfranchisement or employment. If keeping one’s vaccine status private is a concern, staying home will accomplish that.
Furthermore, many critics have voiced skepticism over the privacy question. While some concerns are argued in good faith, others serve to fearmonger and obscure the ways in which private information is already required to participate in public activates. Alex Jiminez⁹ notes how politicians often deploy privacy arguments when it’s convenient to them, writing:
Republicans insist on IDs in order to vote, but reject vaccine “passports” because of privacy issues. I won’t rehash what is already well known of the motivations behind the voter ID law. But as a citizen of Florida, must I risk my life, with apparently no legal recourse, by going to an establishment that is forbidden from requiring proof of vaccine?
“Don’t vaccine passports infringe on personal freedom?”
Both Abbott and DeSantis leaned on the rhetoric of freedom to justify their executive orders. Similar to the debates on mandatory face masks, arguments about passports have little to do with pragmatics or public health. Instead, it points to an ideological conflict.
The fact of the matter is, for many Americans, doing whatever one wants is more important than preserving the health and safety of others. But consider this: roads have speed limits, it’s illegal to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, and homicide tends to incur a prison sentence. Freedom isn’t in question. That’s because personal freedom has never been unlimited. As such, this point obfuscates the real question: are we allowed to endanger others in the name of freedom?
Eventually, Americans have to face facts. Our debate over this contorted definition of liberty has amassed a death toll in the hundreds of thousands.¹⁰ Vaccine passports won’t ensure that no one else gets sick, but they can curb the coronavirus’ spread. Sooner or later, we all have to ask if saving lives is more important than personal convenience.
“What’s the bottom line?”
Ultimately, this debate doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Just as mask mandates met with backlash, so too will vaccine passports. As such, Florida and Texas’ bans signal a point of tension in our culture. How long can we justify policy with vague promises of freedom without considering what that word means?
Margaret Atwood¹¹ once wrote: “There is more than one kind of freedom: freedom to and freedom from.” In all fairness, these executive orders give consumers the freedom to enter private spaces without a potentially life saving vaccine. But what of other customers’ freedom from becoming a carrier, or getting sick themselves? What about the employees in these spaces? One could even argue these orders limits business’ freedom to determine their own health standards.
Ultimately, with thousands of lives on the line, it’s time to see these governors’ flimsy justifications for what they are. They are not defending liberty, safety, or the common good. Instead, they only uphold a paper-thin ideal. Going forward, we can only hope that other governors refrain from making the same mistake.