October 28, 2021

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Should People Be Required to Show Proof of Vaccination?

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

As more and more people across the United States get vaccinated against the coronavirus, you may have seen friends, family and celebrities sharing photos of their vaccine cards to show proof of their vaccinations. But do you think sharing one’s vaccine status should become mandatory to go to school, enter a movie theater, eat in a restaurant or travel?

Could this be the key to getting back to some version of normalcy? Or are you concerned about what so-called “vaccine passports” could mean for your personal rights?

In “Likely Legal, ‘Vaccine Passports’ Emerge as the Next Coronavirus Divide,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Adam Liptak write:

Around the country, businesses, schools and politicians are considering “vaccine passports” — digital proof of vaccination against the coronavirus — as a path to reviving the economy and getting Americans back to work and play. Businesses especially fear that too many customers will stay away unless they can be assured that the other patrons have been inoculated.

But the idea is raising charged legal and ethical questions: Can businesses require employees or customers to provide proof — digital or otherwise — that they have been vaccinated when the coronavirus vaccine is ostensibly voluntary?

Can schools require that students prove they have been injected with what is still officially an experimental prophylaxis the same way they require long-approved vaccines for measles and polio? And finally, can governments mandate vaccinations — or stand in the way of businesses or educational institutions that demand proof?

Legal experts say the answer to all of these questions is generally yes, though in a society so divided, politicians are already girding for a fight. Government entities like school boards and the Army can require vaccinations for entry, service and travel — practices that flow from a 1905 Supreme Court ruling that said states could require residents to be vaccinated against smallpox or pay a fine.

“A community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members,” Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the 1905 case.

Private companies, moreover, are free to refuse to employ or do business with whomever they want, subject to only a few exceptions, ones that do not include vaccination status. And states can probably override that freedom by enacting a law barring discrimination based on vaccination status.

In the Opinion essay “Should You Be Worried About ‘Vaccine Passports’?” Spencer Bokat-Lindell writes about where the right balance lies between concerns for public health and civil liberties. Here is what proponents of “vaccine passports” have to say:

Some businesses, especially cruise lines, airlines and entertainment venues, are eager for a more efficient and potentially more fraud-resistant tool for screening health status than paper documentation, whether to assuage the concerns of their workers or the concerns of potential customers who might be averse to gathering in large groups with unvaccinated or untested people.

In New York, businesses have an additional economic incentive: Since April 2, entertainment venues there have been able to host up to 100 people indoors and up to 200 people outdoors. But if venues require proof of a negative coronavirus test or vaccination, those limits increase to 150 and 500. (Mask-wearing and social distancing are still required.)

In greasing the wheels for reopening, proponents argue, vaccine passes could incentivize people to get inoculated. It wouldn’t be the first time the United States used the strategy: In the early 20th century, the historian Jordan E. Taylor notes in Time, employers, social clubs and ports of entry all across the country demanded proof of vaccination in an effort to stamp out smallpox — and it worked.

If vaccine passes and passports sound coercive, it’s because they are, Megan McArdle writes for The Washington Post. But even as a libertarian, she believes they’re justified: The point of herd immunity, after all, is to protect not only those who choose to forgo vaccines but also those whose immune systems can’t make use of them.

“Between cancer patients, transplant recipients and people receiving treatment for autoimmune diseases, a lot of Americans are on immunosuppressive drugs,” she writes. “Shouldn’t we worry more about them than about the people who choose to stay vulnerable to Covid-19?”

But opponents have ethical concerns:

Some of the fear-mongering about vaccine passports — like the comparisons to Nazi Germany — is easy enough to dismiss: Both the Biden administration and New York State have stressed that participation, like vaccination itself, will be voluntary. And as my colleague Hiroko Tabuchi has pointed out, the demand to “show your ‘health papers’” is one that Americans already tolerate when it’s made of travelers and immigrants.

Still, vaccine certification does pose some genuine ethical concerns. Most obvious is that there still isn’t nearly enough vaccine to go around, and access to it in the United States is sharply fractured along racial and class lines.

“With an unequal health care system, limited vaccine access, and class-driven technological disparities,” Jacob Silverman writes in The New Republic, “vaccine passports may end up being another tool for the rich to return to normal life while the people who are already being failed by our current systems of vaccine rollout find themselves left further out in the cold.”

They continue:

Even once there are enough vaccines for everyone, there will remain a small but significant population of people who can’t generate immunity, as Ms. McArdle points out. And countless others, for whatever reason, are bound to simply refuse vaccination. At what point do their rights to bodily autonomy break even with the collective’s right to public health?

It’s not hard to imagine a future, perhaps just a few months from now, in which the United States has reached herd immunity but concert venues and even bars and restaurants continue to ask customers for their vaccination status. That would mark a real shift from the way we approach vaccines now: As Jay Stanley writes for the American Civil Liberties Union, “Nobody is demanding we provide proof of measles vaccination everywhere we go.”

Students, read one or both of the articles, then tell us:

  • What is your reaction to the debate around “vaccine passports”? Do you think people should be required to show proof of vaccination to travel, attend school, go to stores and engage in other activities? Why or why not?

  • Some companies are exploring the use of apps and scannable QR codes to confirm whether someone has been vaccinated or has tested negative for the coronavirus. Do you think technology like this is a crucial step toward opening a post-pandemic world? Or does it raise privacy concerns? Once you have the opportunity to be vaccinated, how likely would you be to share your personal health information with a third-party platform?

  • How do you think inequity around access to vaccines should be addressed in conversations about vaccine passports? Do you think that people who have not been able to be vaccinated because of lack of access should still be given an opportunity to participate in the same activities as fully vaccinated people? Do you think this inequity is a reason to ban the use of vaccine passports?

  • What role, if any, should the federal government play in the use of vaccine passports? Do you think that the Biden administration should take a more active role in either creating a national vaccine passport or creating standards for private companies making vaccine passport apps? Why or why not?

  • In your opinion, what is the right balance between civil liberties and public health? To what extent does a person have a right to privacy and bodily autonomy, even if it threatens the collective’s right to public health? How concerned should we be with a person’s right to not get vaccinated versus the need to protect those most vulnerable to Covid-19?

About Student Opinion

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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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