World's Best

Vaccine Passports Are Controversial But Their Technology Will Bring Big Benefits to Developing Countries — Global Issues

Ian Richards
  • Opinion by Ian Richards (geneva)
  • Inter Press Service

The demand is there, even as the virus lingers. Many, especially from developing countries, need to get to work and send remittances home, families need to catch up, countries are getting ready to welcome back tourists and business deals need to be struck.

For this reason, governments are taking a close look at the digital vaccine passport, the post-pandemic equivalent of the yellow fever certificate that could offer the possibility of side-stepping costly PCR tests and quarantine requirements.

The World Health Organization has cautioned against moving too quickly, noting “there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission”. Dividing society between haves and have-nots also raises ethical concerns and fears of digital creep.

Despite this, the US, EU, UK and Israel, among others, have announced plans to study the feasibility of vaccine passports that could be carried on a smartphone, while the International Air Transport Association, the World Economic Forum and IBM have versions that are ready to roll out.

The idea behind making vaccine passports digital is both to prevent fraud, given reports of fake PCR tests, and connect to existing online booking, check-in and immigration systems.

On getting vaccinated you upload a digital vaccination certificate to your phone. At check-in or immigration, you scan a QR code, then scan your face to authorise, and the phone shares your vaccination status and linked passport details using an encrypted system that also verifies the validity of the certificate against a register on what is called the blockchain.

However, all other personal information, including for facial recognition, stays on your phone. This is different to mobile boarding passes, which are not secure, nor intended to be, and from which anyone who catches a glimpse of the bar code can extract information.

The technology is not new. The UN’s trade agency, UNCTAD, is using a similar digital identity system to help the Iraqi government handle business licenses, Estonia operates it in many public agencies, and the UN’s pension fund has it to ensure that its retirees are still alive and can continue to be paid.

However, while Covid has helped change many habits, digital documents, even with more basic technology, remain an exception in developing countries, although, as we have seen, the benefits are significant.

And with major players having been involved in the development of the vaccine passport, there will be plenty of computer code, lying around in places like Github, to borrow from.

The biggest beneficiaries, as demonstrated in the few countries that have moved online, are those traditionally left behind: women, young people and those living far from their capital city.

They are the ones who stand to gain even more as vaccine passports help make digital government more commonplace and acceptable across the developing world.

The author is an economist at the UN working on digital government applications.

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© Inter Press Service (2021) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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