As COVID-19’s first birthday passes, the haves and have nots in society are being renamed: the jabbed and the jabless. The recently emerged trend of vaccine passports will offer the former all the amenities of their previous pre-pandemic life, and more, while the latter wait idle in hopes of someday receiving a jab. The use of vaccine passports for recreational travel and tourism, in particular, will exacerbate existing inequities between rich and poor nations. The injustice of this arrangement can not be tolerated and countries in the Global North should refrain from the adoption of vaccine passports for the purpose of recreational travel and tourism.
Much of my transition to adulthood and a more mature understanding of the world has been characterized by a feeling of “are things getting worse or have they always been this bad, and I am only becoming aware of them now?” and the global pandemic has been no exception. As I become more aware of the unequal distribution of wealth and resources, I wonder whether these are signs of worsening inequality as a result of a global pandemic or of my own ignorance.
A great deal of evidence points to the former – that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened global inequality. The World Bank estimates that COVID-19 may add as many as 150 million extreme poor by 2021. Meanwhile, as millions are plunged into extreme poverty, Oxfam estimates that the wealthiest individuals and corporations continue to amass more wealth.
However, previous decades of globalization have undoubtedly created the conditions for this inequality to flourish. Globalization has allowed for the relatively free movement of labor and capital which had disproportionately enriched the Global North and impoverished the Global South. In addition, globalization has facilitated free movement amongst citizens of the global north while restricting the mobility of citizens of the global South.
During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all citizens of the world experienced restriction of movement. Stay-at-home orders abounded, flights were cancelled, and lockdowns proliferated. Recreational travel and tourism, once staples of a middle class lifestyle in a globalized world, became increasingly inaccessible. Only those with the abundant means to finance their own transportation could afford to continue traveling recreationally.
Now, the emerging trend of vaccine passports offers the possibility that recreational travel and tourism on a larger scale will re-emerge in the near future. The European Union recently announced plans to release a Digital Green Certificate which would allow for free movement across EU borders for citizens who have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine and thus introduces the possibility of recreational travel amongst Europe. The European Union is not the only government to flirt with the possibility of recreational travel: the governments of Denmark, Estonia, and Greece are each developing plans for a digital vaccine passport for the purpose of facilitating international travel for tourism and business. Advocates of vaccine passports suggest that they could potentially “put to an end to suffocating restrictions and restore the freewheeling travel that is a hallmark of the age of globalization.”
Indeed, vaccine passports will allow for a quick regression back to the inequality of globalization: the free mobility of capital and labor amongst the Global North at the expense of the Global South. While fully vaccinated citizens of the Global North move freely between borders, many citizens of the global South remain under restrictive lockdown measures until they can access sufficient dosages of the vaccine. Vaccine passports will allow citizens of the nations with the highest vaccination rates, many of the wealthiest nations in the world, to engage in travel for leisure and business while citizens of countries without access to the vaccine, many of the poorest nations in the world, remain at a literal standstill.
If the global vaccine distribution was more equitable, then perhaps the adoption of vaccine passports could be viewed as logical. However, the global vaccine distribution is so woefully unequal that vaccine passports for the purpose of recreational travel simply can not be justified on medical or moral grounds. Scientists are still learning whether a fully vaccinated person can spread the virus that causes COVID-19 to others. Though the likelihood is low, the possibility remains that vaccinated travelers could infect unvaccinated populations. As it currently stands, estimates show that 36% of the population of North America is vaccinated and 21% of Europe compared to 12% of South America, 7.9% of Asia and only 1% of Africa. The United States, the European Union, and Canada are able to purchase the vaccines at preferential prices because of national agreements with the pharmaceutical companies. Meanwhile, countries like South Africa are forced to either buy the vaccine at more than twice the price ($5.25/dose for the AstraZeneca compared to the $2.15/ dose paid by the European Union). Global health initiatives like COVAX offer the potential for vaccine access amongst poorer countries. However, Moderna and Pfizer, the producers of what are widely recognized as the most effective vaccines, have promised few vaccines (40 million from Pfizer) or declined to join it altogether (Moderna). While wealthy countries shop and reshelve vaccines like cereal boxes, poorer countries have not yet had access to a singular vaccine.
The respective situations in the United States and Kenya illustrate the severity of this inequality. As it currently stands, the vast majority of the US is reopened, while vaccinations have opened to all adults. Meanwhile, Kenya’s health minister Mutahi Kagwehas said that Kenya aims to have 30% of its population vaccinated by June 2023. Fully vaccinated citizens of the United States will likely be able to travel recreationally years before most of the population of Kenya has access to a first dose. While many parts of the United States are fully reopened, Kenya remains under a strict lockdown, having suspended all movement by road, rail, or air into and out of five major counties, including Nairobi.
The inequity of the global vaccine distribution is beyond the scope of this piece and brushes upon the limits of my perspective. Kenyan writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola, however, describes the injustice from a firsthand perspective: “I’m not sure how to describe what it feels like to be one of the millions—perhaps billions—of people for whom there is no plan. ‘Abandonment’ only scratches the surface of being condemned to the detritus of international greed and human folly.”
In the context of a severely inadequate vaccine distribution in the Global South, the use of vaccine passports for recreational travel and tourism amongst countries in the Global North simply cannot be justified. Vaccine passports will exacerbate existing inequalities caused by globalization: allowing the rich to accelerate a return to their accustomed freedom of movement while the poor are physically and economically restricted, with limited access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Until the vaccine becomes more accessible in the Global South, the return to free mobility of the Global North simply can not be rationalized.
Edited by Sarah St. Pierre
Maeve is in her fourth year at McGill, studying Honors International Development and Classics. She spent last Winter traveling across East Africa as part of the Africa Field Study Semester, and she spent most of this past summer learning to dive in the Great Lakes off of Northeastern Wisconsin (unsuccessfully, one might add).