Digital Health Passports: A New Travel Buddy in the Post Pandemic Era?


Source: Algorithm Watch


Lockdowns and travel restrictions have been well in place for almost a year. With some countries altogether banning international travel, others forming travel bubbles via partnerships and some countries taking out emergency evacuations, the global travel game has completely changed.


With the arrival of 2021, another important development in this pandemic era has been the rollouts of COVID-19 vaccines all over the world. While some countries struggle to procure enough vaccines for their entire population, the process is still an ongoing one. Several vaccines are in use right now, and mass vaccination programmes have started all over the world under World Health Organisation’s guidance. As a result, the creation of a vaccine against COVID-19 and issuing of vaccine certificates in some nations act as a silver lining for lifting travel restrictions globally.


With hopes of restoring normalcy, numerous health agencies and governments are trying to develop alternatives to age-old vaccine certificates. Vaccine certifications or cards were used as early as the 1880s smallpox outbreaks and in the 1970s for yellow fever, popularly known as yellow cards. These vaccination cards were usually used to check if the said individual had gotten vaccinated and was cleared for travel or not. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a similar situation nowadays with the 21st-century technological twist - Digital Health Passports.


What is a Digital Health Passport?

A Digital Health Passport or Pass is a form of electronic certification that displays a travellers health detail. It would consist of personal information of the said traveller and their medical history in some cases. Particularly in the context of COVID-19, these digital health passports would display the COVID-19 test results of an individual and now even their vaccination status.


Its primary purpose is to check who is eligible to enter a country or travel internationally. Usually displayed in the form of QR codes or barcodes, COVID-19 testing and vaccination status can be accessed by the individuals for air travel stored on the traveller's phone or digital wallet. It is a viable electronic alternative to paper certificates that, according to its advocates, can cause a delay and be forged easily.


The logic behind a digital health passport identification is straightforward. A passenger downloads an application on their cell phone. They either link that application with their travel provider (airlines) or transfer their itinerary to the application. The application then gives direction to what checks they may need to travel to their destination. When those checks are met, say getting a negative COVID-19 test at an official testing centre, and the result is negative, the passenger will get a QR code or some form of digital confirmation, verifying that they are protected to fly. The airlines can check the same while boarding passengers as well.


The same technique can be used to transform the picture of national travel within a country, access to public spaces like movie halls, or even facilitate the opening up of schools and colleges worldwide.


Experiments with Vaccine Passports

Numerous digital giants like Microsoft and Google and various airlines like JetBlue have already started experimenting with the idea of a vaccine passport. Most notably, the World Economic Forum has collaborated with The Commons Project Foundation to launch a Common Trust Network known for developing CommonPass.


Other virtual health passports in the form of digital applications are the International Chamber of Commerce's ICC AOKpass, CoronaPass, IATA (International Air Transport Association) Travel Pass, VeriFLY, V-Health Passport.


CommonPass, developed by a non-profit public trust, allows individuals to access their lab results and vaccination records. It also provides countries worldwide set different checks for entry of visitors based on the country's health requirements.


Recently JetBlue, The Commons Project Foundation and the government of Aruba officially signed a partnership to let passengers from Boston travel to Aruba and enter the country on CommonPass. Prominent companies like United Airlines and British Airways have also set up trials with CommonPass for travellers between London and New York. Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways are also testing with the IATA Travel Pass.


U.K. based digital innovation firm VST Enterprises (VSTE) has introduced the 'V-Health Passport' that can be utilised across borders when going via air, land, or ocean. The 'V-Health Passport' doesn't use bar or QR code innovation, it rather depends on 'VCode', end to end encryption, and 2.2 quintillion overlap free combination codes. The company can furnish air travellers and carriers with a safe computerised passport that approves the traveller's identity, validates their COVID-19 test outcome and inoculation or vaccination all in one secure application.


Source: Wall Street Journal


A few countries have rolled out national and international vaccine passport programmes as a gateway to reinstating the conditions to a pre-pandemic era. Israel’s Green Pass released on 21st February allows its citizens to open an app and show their said pass of vaccination or recovery for movement within the country. Boasting one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, Israel is trying to restore normalcy by making the Green Pass mandatory to access public spaces like gyms, hotels, cinemas and theatres.


The European Union’s proposed Digital Green Certificate has also received a lot of traction from the European Commission for the movement of people within all 27 member states across the EU.


Is There an Urgent Need for Health Passports?

Although only one government has officially launched these digital health passports, and airlines are still testing its outcomes, vaccine passports' future seems bright. While passport technology is gaining popularity as and when more and more governments sign up, it'll make the lives of travellers much easier.


It will act as a concise booklet of information regarding the entry requirements to a country for every traveller, making the whole process less chaotic and confusing for them. It will also be a one-touch eco-friendly solution to forged paper verifications of negative COVID-19 tests and vaccinations. The induction of these digital passports will also enable rejuvenation of the tourism industry that has been in shambles since last year, losing close to one trillion dollars and over a hundred million jobs COVID-19 has led given a major shock to the travel industry, a subject which might find its solution in these digital health passports.


While all governments or airlines might not make it mandatory, the transaction costs of not having a digital health passport itself might be so high that it would make travelling without one utterly irrational. The induction of this passport would significantly improve the international travel situation and restore normalcy.


Underlying Issues with Digital Health Passports

Despite providing a glimmer of hope for restoring normalcy, convenience and security against COVID-19, these digital health passports have some serious concerns.


The primary one being the lack of efficacy of the Coronavirus vaccine itself. As the vaccine outcomes are still partially unknown, investing large sums of money into digital health passports instead of the vaccine itself seems futile.

In addition to this, the vaccine passports have received criticism for discriminating against developing nations that might not be able to procure enough vaccines for their population or vaccinate the entire population.


This can also give a free pass for deliberate discrimination against Asian or African nations in the façade of technological backwardness.

Privacy and security concerns are also a significant point of contention for these applications as private companies are developing these passports and governments trying to exploit the same.


There is a lack of a uniform international system like passports or visa regarding these applications, which can cause international travel to be disorganised.


Social concerns for people without identities or internet facilities might also make this policy seem privileged and inclined towards developed nations.


Conclusion

All in all, the coming age of new technology and especially travel passports focussed on the health status of individuals seems like a possible but risky move. As convenient as it may seem, the development of infrastructure virtually and physically for such a system would require a lot of investment and efficient management. Inclusivity also poses a threat to this setup and might require more attention than what is being given at the moment.



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About the Author:

Asmita Jain is a post-graduate student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. Her interests are public policy, institutions and urban ecology. Email: asmitajain15@gmail.com