Imagine a world where you would not be able to get a job, housing, or a loan – or for that matter, do anything – without passing a blood test. It has happened before, and it seems that this is where the world is wanted to head to.
For most of the 19th century, immunity to yellow fever separated people in New Orleans, Louisiana, between the adjusted ones who had suffered from the disease and survived it and the ‘unacclimated’ who had not had it.
Lack of immunity mandated whom people could marry, where they were allowed to work, and for those who were forced into slavery, how much they were worth. Supposed immunity brought political and economic power in the hands of the wealthy elite, and was turned into a weapon to excuse supremacy.
Something similar could happen in our horrifying future if governments force people to use an ‘immunity passport.’ The concept is that such papers would be issued to those who have recovered and tested positive for COVID-19. Governments would lift restrictions on those who are presumed to have immunity, enabling them to go back to work, socialize, and to travel.
But this concept has so many deficiencies that it is mind-blowing. China has already issued virtual health checks, contact tracing, and OQ codes to limit the movement of people. However, any certificate that limits individual freedom based on biology risk is becoming a tool to restrict human rights, increasing discrimination, and menacing public health, rather than protecting it.
Here are a few reasons – both practical and ethical – why these immunity passports should not be allowed to be introduced.
COVID-19 Immunity is an Enigma
Recent data demonstrate that some recovered patients produce some antibodies against the coronavirus. However, scientists have no idea whether everyone produces antibodies, what a ‘safe’ level might be, or how long the person is immune to the virus.
The Tests are Unreliable
Tests used to measure COVID-19 antibodies in the blood differ at rather broad extents in both quality and efficacy. This has made the WHO and former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to warn against their use in analyzing individual health or immune status. Also, previous data clearly states that most of them are not reliable.
Monitoring Doesn’t Allow Any Privacy
The whole idea behind immunity passports is to control movement. Therefore, any approach for immunity papers must have a system for identification and monitoring. As everyone knows, digital documentation would be more effective for contact tracing, but they represent a more serious risk to privacy. OR codes on smartphones control access to public places based on the person’s COVID-19 status – however, these apps collect and report to third parties people’s locations, travel history, who they have come in contact with and everything about them, such as their body temperature to whether they’ve had a cold.
People Will be Divided and Face More Scrutiny
Monitoring brings increased policing by default, and with it comes higher risks of profiling and potential dangers to racial, sexual, religious, or other minority groups. Throughout the pandemic, China has been profiling residents by making all African nationals test for the virus, and in some parts, they were even abused. In other countries, people from Asia have encountered insane spikes in racialized discrimination.
Labeling people based on their immunity status would generate a new gauge by which to divide people. Such stratification would rely on luck, money, and personal circumstances, as restricting work, concerts, restaurants, and even health-care centers would harm and deprive the majority of the population.
Immunity passports could also create tensions between nations. Citizens from countries that cannot or do not want to issue these papers could be banned from traveling to other countries. Already people with HIV are encountering numerous restrictions such as traveling to, living, and working in some countries with laws that intrude on the rights of certain groups of people.
Success relies on solidarity and a sincere appreciation that we are in this together. Rather than issuing immunity passports, the authorities should invest time, talent, and money in trying to isolate the virus and restore everything this crisis damaged. Health status, personal data, and location should not be traced and monitored, and apps that allow people to make safe choices about their own movements should be a given.