By: Griffin Cullen-Norris
For those accustomed to travelling between nations, showing one’s passport to border security is as typical as packing your luggage. Passports are nothing new, people have been using passports in one form or another for thousands of years now. Indeed, one of the earliest references to a document akin to a passport comes from over twenty-four hundred years ago, when Nehemiah, a Persian official, is said to have received a letter of safe passage to travel into the southern Levant. In Canada meanwhile, passports have been documented ever since the French king Louis XIV began issuing them in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. For many, it is accepted as simply common sense to keep tabs on who enters or leaves a country, while others advocate for more freedom of movement between nations as seen in the heated debates over illegal immigration and refugee crises. However, another proposed form of identification is creating fresh controversy. This is the ‘vaccine passport’.
Showing proof of vaccination to be able to enter certain institutions or cross borders is also a well established practice. In Ontario, immunization against nine illnesses is currently required to attend a primary and secondary school, while proof of immunization or other prophylaxis against certain diseases such as yellow fever is required (on the recommendation of the WHO) for travel to and from certain nations.
‘Vaccine passports’ are simply official documents confirming that the holder has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and are required by many nation states to allow travellers to enter (or re-enter) as they usually would or to skip quarantine periods. These certificates are however not only being employed for travel, but also the ability to work, as many employers are now requiring proof of vaccination from their employees.
Implementation has not only been beset with technical difficulties as in the case of Ontario’s app, but is still controversial. According to a Leger poll with a sample size of 1529 Canadians, sixty-two per cent of respondents were in favour of issuing vaccine passports. Among the remaining thirty-eight per cent views range from a sentiment that such measures are simply not necessary all the way to the other end of the spectrum, where some Canadians believe that such measures are immoral and tyrannical (with some of the latter to be found daily protesting outside Queen’s Park). To contextualise these data, as of December 20, 2021 over seventy-seven per cent of Ontarians are fully vaccinated, and nearly eighty-three percent have received at least one dose, leaving only seventeen percent of Ontarians unvaccinated.
In their fight against these public health and safety measures, other vaccine objectors have enlisted the help of enterprising individuals skilled in digital editing and forgery to create fake vaccine passports. This practice has spread across Canada, with some particularly confident producers even claiming that their product is good enough to fool government databases. Prices can reach the hundreds of dollars (payable in crypto-currency, if one prefers) for a fake vaccine passport. Nevertheless as the passports become established, provincial governments have implemented security measures and punishments for offenders, to ward off anyone thinking of getting into this business. In Ontario, should you get caught using a fake vaccine certificate, your punishments can range from a fine of $750-$100,000 as well as up to a year’s worth of jail time. As for actually detecting such cases, Bill Campbell, a spokesperson for the Ontario Health Ministry, was unable to confirm whether government databases would be able to identify those fake vaccination records. When wondering why someone might pay for a forgey which could land them in jail, the anti-vaccine movement comes to mind, with its members widely viewing vaccines as unsafe for human use.
However, there are other considerations as well. In a letter addressed to Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, the Canadian Civil Liberties Associations advanced an argument that vaccine passports represent a case of government overreach, discriminating against those who decline on the grounds of ethics, religion, and/or health conditions. They also argue it is unfair to restrict the travel and the freedom of mobility for those who plan to receive their second dose, but are being made to wait by healthcare regulations.
If the government plans to enforce draconian measures against everyone who refuses to get vaccinated as opponents of vaccine passports fear, they are taking their time. Canadian and United States border officials have reported hundreds of cases of fake passports, but out of them only seventeen have seen fines being put into place. A slap on the wrist seems to be the heaviest punishment most people caught in possession of forged vaccine passports will face, a policy perhaps motivated by concern of a court challenge undermining border policy.
However, as the federal and provincial governments drag their feet on implementing effective vaccine identification, for both political and practical reasons, hope does remain that the rising voluntary vaccination rate will be sufficient to inhibit further spread of the virus. Nevertheless, the emergence of novel variants poses a new challenge to such a relaxed policy, as the Omicron variant’s high vaccine resistance and phenomenal transmissibility may require vaccination of the statistically entire population (i.e., 99.9 per cent) in order to effectively limit the spread of the disease if the variant continues to spread, especially with people coming together in increasing numbers over the holidays.