By Mwanambuyu Sitwala
The world has evolved so fast in the last 12 months ushering us into a decade which those in religious circles see as the beginning of apocalyptical times. The world we have always known and long to return to from 2019 and backwards is gone. Only time will tell if we will ever get back to the old normal we knew it. Yes, we may drop off the face masks later in 2021 or years to come but the way of life like overseas travel maybe impacted in a long time to come.
This takes us to the discussion of the Digital Health Passports or Health Pass in relation to Covid-19. Following the roll out of the Pfizer, Moderna and other Covid-19 vaccines across North America and Europe, the possibility of introducing digital health passports across the globe as an alternative way to easy lockdowns and allow normal travel is more likely to be one of the possible options that could be on the table on various business houses and foreign governments. The proponents of health passports see them as an easy way of identifying people with immunity and lower risk of spreading the virus.
What are Health Passports?
A Health Passport can be defined as “a digital or paper based-document which is used to certify if a person is unlikely to either catch or spread a disease”. In the case of Covid-19, authorities or business houses could choose to use health passports to verify whether the holder is vaccinated or tested negative for Covid-19 or has recovered from the disease if he tested positive. The proponent of this argument claim authorities worldwide can use health passports to lift covid-19 imposed-lockdowns thereby enabling people to return to normal as before. This is also seen as another way to prevent social breakdown and the looming global economic down turn.
Are Health Passports already in use?
Yes, these health passports are already in use in some countries. One of the examples of a digital health passport is COVI-PASS which was developed by a British cyber security firm. The COVI-PASS works by using the colour code system that comprises green, amber and red to show if a person tested positive or negative to COVID-19. China is already using this similar kind of digital Health Passport (app-based health code system) that uses medical and travel data to give people a green, yellow or red rating which indicates the likelihood of people having the COVID-19 virus, and whether or not they can walk around freely.
India has also developed a first ever digital V-health passport for overseas travellers that can provide airline passengers and airline industry with secure digital health passport that validates the identity of the passenger, and further authenticates his/her Covid-19 test results and vaccination status details all in one secure app. The V-Health Passport is said to use VCode to provide advanced closed loop technology and end-to-end encryption as opposed to bar or QR code technology that can be easily hacked.
Israel is not lagging behind with this technology. It has already proposed “Green Passports” for all individuals vaccinated against COVID-19. People with green passports will be exempted from quarantine if they are crossing borders, and will have easy access to public restaurants and events, while those without them will not enjoy these benefits.
Examples of countries signalling that they will embrace the digital Health Passports are quite a lot. Industries like the airline through its global lobby group, the International Air Transport Association also stated that it will soon launch a digital health travel pass early this year that will include passengers’ COVID-19 vaccination data.
Are there concerns?
Health passports are raising a number of public health and privacy concerns across the globe. Some people fear that the introduction of digital health passports could pave way for many authorities to extend the use of such technologies to individual’s criminal and social-media profile that would result in increased censorship all in the name of safety.
Other people fear that the digital nature of health passports could also lead to abuse of data that would be collected from them especially in future when such systems become integrated into one online database containing all personal history of every citizen.
The other questions begging answers on the use of Health Passports are; how many years will one remain immune to Covid-19 after being vaccinated? How about those who recover from the disease? Wont they be immune to COVID-19 to some extent? If so, for how long?
Regardless of the ongoing debates, some countries as earlier mentioned have already embarked on this journey to roll out digital Health Passport in their nations. Only time will tell how far this will go.
The Author is an Australia Awards Scholar – Public Health Monash University, Melbourne