Vaccine Passports: Why? How?

There’s only one reason to require COVID vaccine passports: to coerce people into getting the vaccine. While vaccination is not required, a passport requirement would say, “Whether you get the vaccine is up to you, but if you want to travel or shop or do anything outside your home, a passport is required.”

For those who are concerned about getting the virus from unvaccinated people, get vaccinated! Unvaccinated people pose a very small threat to those who have been vaccinated. Sure, the threat’s not zero, but any time you are around other people, you could catch a cold, or the flu, or Ebola, from them. You could get hit by their cars or knocked down if they bumped into you on the sidewalk. The risk to the vaccinated from being around the unvaccinated is small compared to other risks of being in places where other people are present.

I’m not discussing whether people should get vaccinated (I think they should, and I have been) or whether they should be required to be vaccinated (I don’t think they should; their health care decisions should not be mandated to them). The fact is that vaccination is not mandatory, and what I’m considering here is whether vaccine passports should be required

The simple answer is no: people can protect themselves from unvaccinated individuals by getting vaccinated themselves. The only reason to mandate passports is to coerce those who don’t want the vaccine into getting it. That’s a violation of their individual liberty.

That’s the why. The how is more complicated. Some issues are discussed here. What constitutes vaccination? If someone gets the Russian vaccine or the Chinese vaccine, does that count? Some proposals would allow a negative COVID test or a positive antibody test to count.

What form would the passport take? Some have suggested a smartphone app, or perhaps a paper passport with a QR code. Could they be forged? Could one person game the system by using someone else’s passport?

Another issue is that people in disadvantaged groups might lack access to a smartphone, or even lack access to the vaccine. Much has been made of the fact that minorities are disproportionately vaccinated.

How would a passport requirement be enforced? Would Wal-Mart greeters be trained to inspect and certify those who want to enter their stores? We’ve already seen the confrontations that have resulted from mask mandates. Airlines could probably handle this easily. They already require substantial documentation. Restaurants? Not so much.

Imagine the burden on restaurants if they were prohibited from serving those without passports. “Whoops. I have a passport but I forgot my phone, but here I am with my party of six.” I suppose the restaurant would have to say “We can serve five of you, but the one without the phone will have to wait outside.”

All of this is fairly hypothetical at the moment. The Biden administration has said they have no plans for a national COVID passport, and some states like Florida have said such passports are absolutely out of the question. But the Biden administration has opened the possibility that the private sector could issue COVID passports, and other states might require their own.

There are too many unspecified parameters to determine how such a passport system could be implemented. Another wild card, though, is that the European Union might require COVID passports to enter, meaning that Americans who want to travel there might need one.

There are many problems with the idea of COVID passports. First, because a vaccine is not required, they would compromise people’s liberty by pressuring them into getting one. Second, despite promises that such a system would not compromise individuals’ medical and other records, the necessity of linking the vaccine information with one’s individual identity always opens this risk. Third, if required by the government, this overreach would extend the power of the government to collect personal information and track individual behavior. As long as the vaccine is not mandatory (which is how it should be), nobody should be required to disclose whether they have had it.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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