Article by Archita Srinath
Graphic design by Sherry An
It has been almost two years since the COVID-19 pandemic shook up the world in ways we never knew possible. Phrases like “social distancing” and “work from home” are now in our everyday vocabulary and checking to see if you have your mask before leaving the house is as normal as checking for your phone, wallet, and keys. Moreover, people are dealing with the unimaginable trauma of losing their loved ones and livelihoods whilst unable to engage with their social support systems. With the constant fear of contracting this virus anytime we step out of our homes, it has made the last two years one of the most challenging times in our lifetime. So, when the scientific community ran shouting “help is on the way dear” like a vaccine wielding Mrs. Doubtfire, most of us breathed a sigh of relief. However, when the Ontario government mandated “vaccine passports” for entry into public spaces, concerns over safety, privacy and equitable access to the vaccine were raised. So, let me pose these questions: are these fears valid? And if they are, how can we work to resolve them?
Many people view the implementation of vaccine passports as a way to coerce them into getting a vaccine that they feel is unsafe. Making vaccination mandatory to hold certain jobs or attend social events impedes people’s financial and mental state, therefore, making them more likely to get the shot even if they do not want to. Although it is true that these mandates are warranted given the risk that COVID-19 poses on human health, safety concerns are valid. We need to acknowledge the fact that many people fear long-term effects. Medical research has failed countless times in the past which has resulted in the harm and death of numerous people. Therefore, the lack of trust in the medical system is understandable, especially in marginalized populations that have historically been the victims of medical malpractice. Even though clinical trials and public health data support the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, it is vital that efforts to communicate this are inclusive and comprehensive.1 Therefore, combating misinformation on social media should be prioritized and the media should avoid sensationalizing rare side effects by carefully presenting them with context.
Most vaccine passport opposers feel that the government is overstepping its boundaries by limiting the free will we expect in a democratic society. However, this argument is trite since proof of immunization for free movement in public spaces is not a new concept in Canadian society. One major system that requires proof of immunization against infectious diseases for entry are schools.2 Hospitals and other health care settings require their staff to show proof of vaccination before working on the premises. These requirements have been around for ages but has never seen the pushback that the COVID-19 vaccines have received. According to Dr. Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist from the University of Ottawa, labeling proof of immunization as “vaccine passports” contributes in part to this resistance as it reminds people of restrictive border security.3 Therefore, changing the way in which vaccine passports are referred to can also be helpful to reduce this anxiety.
Another commonly cited reason against vaccine passports is loss of privacy. However, privacy concerns can be dispelled if the government takes measures to protect the app against security breaches and ensures that they are only tracking relevant personal information. According to the Ontario Government, the app never stores personal information and does not display your health card number to the person checking your passport.4 Additionally, Ontario allows for proof of vaccination to be shown through a printed copy. So, if you have privacy concerns with the app, printing out a certificate or asking the Provincial Vaccine Contact Centre to mail you a copy is an ideal solution.4 With these provisions, vaccine passports are no more intrusive on personal privacy than verifying your identification at a local bar.
There are also concerns from the Ontario Human Rights Commission over barriers to equitable vaccine access for everyone.5 People who are not able to get vaccinated even if they wanted could therefore face discrimination based on their immunization status. However, there are resources available to help combat many barriers for marginalized communities. The National Newcomer Network offers support in many languages to undocumented and migrant workers to get their vaccines without the need for government identification.6 The Accessible Drive to Vaccines program will ensure that anyone who needs help getting to a clinic will be able to get a ride.7 This is meant to help individuals with disability and older people with mobility issues to get their shots. However, a major gap in the aid available does exist for people experiencing homelessness. Although there are avenues to get a vaccine without the need for a health card, showing proof of vaccination still proves to be difficult as they may not have a cell phone or be able to keep a printed copy safe from theft.
Finally, according to the Centre for Disease Control, vaccinated individuals are much less likely to become seriously ill and spread the disease than unvaccinated people.1 Therefore, ensuring that everyone in a poorly ventilated public space like a gym or restaurant is vaccinated is helpful to slow down the spread of COVID-19. As long as we continue to work at making vaccines more accessible to every single Canadian, curb the spread of misinformation on the internet, and protect everyone’s reasonable right to privacy, vaccine passport is a great new method to get us back to normal life. And who does not miss that?
- Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) [homepage on the Internet]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021 [cited 2021 Oct 18]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/science/science-briefs/fully-vaccinated-people.html
- Vaccines for children at school [homepage on the Internet]. ontario.ca. 2021 [cited 2021 Oct 18]. Available from: https://www.ontario.ca/page/vaccines-children-school#exemptions
- Bensadoun E. ‘Vaccine passport’ or ‘immunization record’? Why experts say there’s power in words – National | Globalnews.ca [homepage on the Internet]. Global News. 2021 [cited 2021 Oct 18]. Available from: https://globalnews.ca/news/8171936/vaccine-passport-language-concerns/
- Ontario Newsroom [homepage on the Internet]. News.ontario.ca. 2021 [cited cited 2021 Oct 18]. Available from: https://news.ontario.ca/en/backgrounder/1000980/using-your-enhanced-vaccine-certificate-frequently-asked-questions
- OHRC policy statement on COVID-19 vaccine mandates and proof of vaccine certificates | Ontario Human Rights Commission [homepage on the Internet]. Ohrc.on.ca. 2021 [cited 2021 Oct 18]. Available from: http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/news_centre/ohrc-policy-statement-covid-19-vaccine-mandates-and-proof-vaccine-certificates
- Covid-19: Vaccination for undocumented and migrant workers in Ontario [homepage on the Internet]. National Newcomer Navigation Network. 2021 [cited 2021 Oct 18]. Available from: https://www.newcomernavigation.ca/en/news/covid-19-vaccination-for-ontario-undocumented-and-migrant-workers.aspx
- Ontario Newsroom [homepage on the Internet]. News.ontario.ca. 2021 [cited 2021 Oct 18]. Available from: https://news.ontario.ca/en/release/1000389/ontario-providing-accessible-rides-to-covid-19-vaccination-sites