Vaccine passport discussions should prioritize fairness over economics, ethicist says

The issue of vaccine passports is one rife with the potential for discrimination, and should be approached with a focus on fairness above the economic benefits, says one bioethicist.

“(Passports) have the potential to make the inequities that we're seeing from COVID even worse because we know that people who are the hardest hit by COVID are actually the least likely to be vaccinated in some cases at this point in time,” University of Toronto researcher Alison Thompson told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday.

“We want to make really sure that vaccine access has been equitable and that it's been not just accessible, but that we have actually reached those communities that need it the most.”

There is a growing debate in the U.S. about whether businesses and employers can and should require proof of vaccination as a way to speed up a return to normalcy. The White House has said it will not impose a national passport, but the idea of increased access for the vaccinated has started to become reality, with some sports venues allowing access to people with proof of vaccination.

Vaccine passports are even further advanced in Europe, where the UK is currently running a trial of “COVID-status certificates”, which could allow for freer travel and enable access to certain events. The European Union is planning a “Digital Green Certificate” which would allow for free movement across borders.

According to Thompson, sports venues, airlines and other private businesses might run into legal issues in Canada if they followed suit, although she sees the ethical issue as the priority.

“Let's be really careful about saying that we need this for economic recovery and forgetting about some of these social inequalities, and the discrimination potential here is also significant,” she said. “Legally it remains to be seen whether or not they can do that. the question is ought they to do that.”

Research shows the pandemic has hit certain populations in Canada harder than others. Low-wage workers have taken the brunt of the economic hit from lockdowns, and areas with high visible minority populations have suffered higher mortality rates. There has also been criticism that the vaccine rollout has not effectively prioritized high-risk populations.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged that all Canadian adults who want a vaccine will have one by September, the slower pace of vaccinations in other parts of the world complicates things for many of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants that Canada takes in each year.

“There are 85 countries that won't even be vaccinated until 2023, and is that fair to require people to be vaccinated when they don't even have access?” said Thompson.

As of Sunday, about 19 per cent of Canada’s population has received at least one vaccine dose.

Also in question is when children will be vaccinated and whether at some point, COVID-19 vaccinations will be required to attend in-person learning. While vaccine manufacturers have begun tests on younger children, no vaccine is currently authorized for use in children under 16 in Canada.

The issue of school vaccinations would seem like less of an ethical minefield as children are already required to get certain vaccines in some provinces, including Ontario. Thompson said by the time children are being vaccinated en masse it’s likely the vast majority of the adult population will be vaccinated as well, which means there will be less benefits of having passports. More broadly, she expects it will be some time before the issue of passports can be successfully tackled in Canada.

“We need to have this conversation and it's great that we're doing it now, because we're hopefully about a year away from actually making this a fair requirement for people,” she said.