By Sohini Banerjee and KS Roshan Menon
India is in the middle of its mammoth vaccination endeavour to inoculate all adults in the population, with the number of second doses being administered on the rise. The ‘vaccine certificate’ – a digital proof of successful vaccination – has thus become commonplace. While individuals who have only received the first dose of the vaccine are being issued a provisional certificate, those who have received both doses are being issued a final certificate. We analyse the status of vaccine certificates as mere proofs of immunisation, and caution that they may in effect act as potential vaccine passports.
On the face of it, there appears to be a distinction between a vaccine certificate as issued by CoWIN, and a vaccine passport. However, digging deeper reveals some disconcerting conceptual overlaps. With a return to pre-pandemic activities in progress, this is a timely inquiry.
A paper in The Lancet has defined a vaccine passport as “a potential tool for recording and sharing the immunity status of an individual”. In other words, these so-called passports would enable access to an individual’s health data, specifically their vaccination status and Covid test results. The function of a vaccine passport is not limited to international travel alone and may be relevant for a range of activities, such as gaining entry to workplaces and restaurants. As a term, ‘vaccine passport’ is loaded with baggage and hence nations across the world have shied away from using it.
Nevertheless, on stepping beyond mere terminology, we recognise that the widespread use of vaccine certificates in India could potentially function as a veritable vaccine passport. Evidence for the same may be found in the statements of the Chairman of the Empowered Group on Vaccination, who has recognised universal interoperability and verifiability as key facets of the certification process.
Moreover, India’s commitment to global standards on vaccine certificates does not inspire confidence. A scrutiny of the WHO interim guidelines on smart vaccination certificates enable local governments to utilise the certificate for “health, occupational, education and travel purposes”, indicating the potential for indiscriminate use of certificates by municipal governments. Such concerns are exacerbated by instances of informational inaccuracies in vaccine certificates being issued by CoWIN.
Regulators need to pay close attention to the role of the ‘vaccine certificate’ as an interoperable digital utility. The principle of interoperability per se does not raise significant ethical or constitutional concerns. It is, however, the use of the digital certificate as a sine qua non for the delivery of certain services that pose inherent challenges.
A working paper by the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society sheds light on a variety of use cases that could potentially discriminate against individuals based on their vaccination status. Such use cases range from the restriction of freedom of movement (persons without a vaccine certificate may be denied from travelling to certain areas), curbing equitable access to education (improper vaccine certificates may be used to deny students admission to the physical premises of a university) and denial of access to private establishments such as hotels or malls. Reports indicate that vaccine certificates are already being linked to passports for international travel, and are becoming essential for domestic air travel in some states.
These concerns also offer a glimpse into a second-order problem, the emergence of ‘mission creeps’ – a situation where the vaccine certificate continues to be leveraged technologically to stand as ‘evidence of fitness’ for participating in ordinary everyday activities. India has previously experienced turbulence with such mission creep – publishing and consequently retracting orders that made Aarogya Setu mandatory for inter-state air travel.
It is especially relevant to take note of such mission creep due to the unique circumstances we find ourselves in today. In reviewing digital tools created specifically to respond to the current public health crisis, it is worthwhile to remember that these tools are capable of identifying individuals and tracking user data, even after the pandemic is over.
Keeping in mind the impact of the pandemic on parliamentary proceedings and the imminent need for strategic intervention, we recommend that the State consider issuing a specialised protocol that outlines the role and functions of the vaccine certificate. The manner of issuing the protocol may be akin to the issuance of the Aarogya Setu (Data Access and Knowledge Sharing) Protocol, 2020, with the Empowered Committee on COVID-19 ideating on the first principles for issuing dignity-preserving vaccine certificates. This would define the scope of the vaccine certificate, and address prominent concerns around its deployment.
Sohini Banerjee and KS Roshan Menon are Research Fellow and Research Scholar at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co.
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