When European immigrants to the US passed through Ellis Island in New York harbour in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, they had to stand in line to be checked for illnesses such as tuberculosis. Only when certified as healthy could they pass freely into the new world and become Americans.
Coronavirus is bringing back a hint of their experience to global travel, with Qantas warning this week that it expects to allow only passengers who can prove they have been vaccinated on international flights. Five other airlines also plan to offer digital health passes and some countries could stop people arriving without one.
This will not be the sum of health inspections to curb the pandemic over the next year. Offices and public venues may scan mobile phone apps that link the proof of vaccination or a negative test to digital identities before letting people in. National passports are only needed occasionally for travel, but “immunity passports” could intrude into everyday lives.
Were it not for the extraordinary limits placed on our lives since the start of the pandemic, with governments dictating how and where people can meet, this would be hard to countenance. Lilian Edwards, a professor at Newcastle University, argues that imposing medical interventions can provoke people to avoid or resist.
But the global medical emergency has accelerated many things that were already happening at a slower pace — from online shopping to remote working. Digital identity is another example and, despite the risk it presents to liberty and privacy, a strong incentive to contribute to public health is justified.
Vaccination is unusual in benefiting both the patient who gets injected and others, since many diseases stop being dangerous if a society gains herd immunity. That allows for freeriding: those who do not vaccinate themselves or their children against measles rely on others doing so to protect them anyway.
If everyone were an anti-vaxxer, herd immunity would fail and diseases such as diphtheria, polio and tuberculosis could return to countries where they have ceased to be a common threat. Some states already require proof of vaccination against, for example, yellow fever from travellers arriving from at-risk territories.
Others take a liberal approach — they encourage vaccination, often strongly, but tolerate refusal by those who fear its comparatively tiny risks. This strikes me as unfair, partly from my experience of having lived in New York City, which (perhaps due to the history of Ellis Island) is very strict.
Children who are unvaccinated are not allowed into many New York schools. Proscription even applies to those with head lice, which spread rapidly unless checked. Children who catch them have to be taken out of school and sent to “nit-picking” salons that comb them out and provide proof of treatment — not digital but effective.
Using similar sanctions to enforce coronavirus protection on adults who fly internationally is quite justified. Airlines will be wary about being seen to bar customers from flights, but it is pointless to let someone board an aircraft if he or she cannot disembark at the other end.
A harder question is whether workplaces, or even hotels and theatres, should require proof of immunity before letting people enter. There will be sound reasons to do this — many offices remain empty and allowing normality to return is a social and economic necessity. It can only happen when people trust they are not in danger.
Governments that do not make vaccination compulsory themselves will be tacitly relying on companies and organisations to do it for them. It will force the latter to make unpopular decisions but they should be allowed, even encouraged, to protect customers and employees from harm.
Privacy is a second concern — if people have to store their health details on central databases, it may be misused or exploited by governments and others. Any push for digital identity carries risks, although it is often well motivated — the World Bank estimates that nearly 1bn people find it hard to access services because they lack proof of identity.
But privacy need not be a barrier. The five airlines planning to offer digital passes are using a platform called CommonPass, which stores only limited data on a passenger’s phone — a QR code that shows they meet the regulations for entry. No airline wants to be responsible for inspecting health records.
Nor does an employer need to pry; scanning a code that answers a single question — whether someone has made the effort to guarantee their own safety and that of others — is enough. The approach of using a verified QR code on a phone or paper as a privacy shield could be used more widely.
None of it is ideal: people being stopped from boarding flights or entering offices if they do not comply with official health advice infringes on liberty. But millions who have endured states of emergency and lockdowns have not been living in a free world. If there is an exit, lead us through it.