Vacations the world over have been a mainstay of the middle class. For India, these vacations were rapidly expanding to international travel. Just over 18 months ago, international travel entailed planning a trip, getting a VISA, booking tickets and boarding a flight. Upon arrival at the destination, you proceeded to customs and immigration where your VISA was verified, perhaps a few questions asked and then you were free to explore"a new city, a new country, a new culture. But the pandemic changed all of that. Travel now is as much about the risk of infection as it is about exploration. Quarantine rules, mandatory masks and proof of vaccination are a given. And the standard set of documents that earlier contained the passport, air ticket and visa is now likely to include a new item: the vaccine passport.
A vaccine passport is a proof that a traveller has been vaccinated; usually in the form of a certificate, a stamp on the passport on an app on the smartphone. The idea behind these vaccination passports has emanated from governments around the globe trying to protect citizens from another outbreak while balancing the need for connectivity and commerce. But the idea, as good as it is, is fraught with challenges.
The challenges of vaccine passports
For one, vaccination passports currently are in many forms. They are digital, physical and, in some cases, interlinked, such as an app on the smartphone, a paper certificate or a unique bar code stamped on the passport. Ideally, these are traceable, verifiable and standard. But therein lies the challenge. Multiple forms of proof make for longer queue time, longer processing time and tougher verification.
An app can't be mandated for all because not all travellers have smartphones. In India, for instance, there is significant labour movement and these travellers at times don't carry phones let alone smartphones. Paper certificates are being used but these come with requirements like a test that is done within 48 or 72 hours before departure and only approved centres as vaccine providers. Paper certificates are also easy to duplicate and thus the risk of fakes and fraud. Indeed, the market for fake certificates in Europe and India is undeniable"challenge lawmakers are very cognizant of.
Finally, there is a process of linking the vaccination proof to the passport itself"now a ubiquitous travel document, but which took half a century to become standardised. A stamp in the passport is ideal yet hard to implement as it requires the involvement of multiple agencies that are verified and approved.
It gets more complicated. Assuming the vaccine passport is standardised, not all vaccines are being accepted by all countries. For the most part, vaccines developed in the West are being accepted. These include the ones from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson. As the list indicates, Indian vaccines like Covaxin that are as effective (if not more) are missing. The proof is in the numbers. Covidshield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured locally by the Serum Institute of India, is accepted by ~130 countries while Covaxin, the Indian vaccine manufactured by Bharat Biotech, is accepted by only ~9. Efforts are underway to have the World Health Organization add Covaxin to the approved list but approval has not yet come and may take months. The same is the case with the Russian vaccine Sputnik-V, manufactured by Dr Reddy's Laboratories in India.
A digital pass for all?
The vaccine passport initiative is not only being pushed by foreign governments. Other entities such as airlines and airports are also keen on this to mitigate the risk of infection. Some are working closely with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) towards rolling out a digital travel pass that will be a single point of proof of vaccination. But global acceptance of such a travel pass coupled with affordable access, privacy and procedures promise to be a monumentally complex undertaking.
Finally, there is politics surrounding vaccine passports. For instance, the United States has held that while it is for vaccination it will not issue a federal mandate on vaccine passports or create a vaccine database; the African Union has held that a vaccine passport in itself carries inequity as vaccines have not been evenly distributed across the globe; and in India's case, locally developed vaccines that are extremely effective are not suitable for travel since foreign countries refuse to accept these.
The European Union has their own rules; Singapore is working with the IATA towards accepting a travel pass; and Australia for the most part remains closed. All this while travel stands suspended and the traveller is found wanting for a solution. A solution that is sound, equitable and universal.
With the global vaccination drive underway, governments the world over are now focused on how aspects of the pandemic can be reversed. Because, travel has a sizeable impact on economies, on society and on politics. Travel safety now includes a new element"health safety. Once vaccinated, people are itching to travel"at least the ones who can afford it. Travel towards exploration, towards excitement and towards experiences. Vaccine passports will make this possible.
The author is the managing partner at aviation services firm AT-TV. Views expressed are personal.