The one thing that possibly helped all of us get through lockdown was daydreaming about the next vacation we’d take. With restrictions easing up and the various vaccines being developed, we slowly felt those dreams having the possibility of coming true. While many countries have begun the rollout of the vaccine, the news of a new strain of coronavirus breaking out in the UK, scared everyone and shattered those dreams. Even governments started re-instating border control by banning travel to and from the UK.
While all countries haven't banned air travel, there are certain new precautions put into place to try and make travel in 2021 possible and ‘virus-free’.
The introduction of a ‘Digital Health Pass’
Various companies are in the works of developing smartphone applications and softwares that would enable its users to put in their relevant health information that would validate their health status. It would also act as a ‘proof’ of them being free from the virus, just like a ‘vaccine passport’.
The Common Trust Network is a collaborative initiative between The Commons Project, which is a Geneva-based non-profit organisation and The World Economic Forum. The CommonPass app allows the user to upload their medical health data like covid test results, covid vaccination proof in the form of a health certificate which would have a QR code that would be shown to authorities without revealing any sensitive personal information. These digital health certificates could be used to enter concert venues, stadiums, movie theatres, offices, or even countries. They have also partnered with various airlines like Cathay Pacific, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss Airlines, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic.
Even the tech giant IBM has been working to launch its own software called Digital Health Pass. What’s unique about this software is that it would allow companies and venues to customise the indicators that they would be looking at to allow an individual entry. For eg- if a company looks at temperature checks and vaccination records then only that data will be showcased on the app to ensure a smooth transition. The app would then store that particular information in the form of a ‘digital wallet’ that can be accessed easily by the user.
Similarly, India has developed the Aarogya Setu App requiring users to input their health information. It also uses the phone’s Bluetooth connections to alert the user incase they have come in contact with anyone who has contracted the virus. Based on that information, it shows whether you are ‘safe’ or not. The use of this app is mandatory in India to enter airports, malls, cinema halls or any other public space. Although it doesn’t have the technology to hold the user's covid test results or future vaccination proof yet.
While these preliminary steps taken by various companies are in the right directions, people are not entirely assured by these apps.
There are concerns over these ‘vaccine passports’
The idea of an all-digital vaccine passport that would contain all relevant medical information does seem enticing however it has also raised certain concerns. One of the main issues that have been brought up is regarding each country’s own specific health and safety standards. While the WHO has released official guidelines regarding the pandemic, each country has its own guidelines when it comes to dealing with anything covid related. Any vaccine passport will have to take each countries individual guidelines into consideration, to be called a truly ‘global passport’.
While an online app may be convenient for some, a large part of the population doesn't have access to a smartphone. The sole reliance on these digital apps may lead to the exclusion of that part of the population however, a few companies have been trying to develop a ‘smart card’ that would convert a traditional online vaccination certificate into something that is accessible to all.
With technology penetrating our lives, issues regarding our privacy have certainly made the rounds. CommonPass and IBM both have stressed the importance of their user’s privacy in their mission statements. IBM even allowed it’s users to control the use of their health data by choosing the level of detail that will be provided to the authorities.
IBM commented on a post saying “Trust and transparency remain paramount when developing a platform like a digital health passport, or any solution that handles sensitive personal information. Putting privacy first is an important priority for managing and analyzing data in response to these complex times.”
Although these vaccine passports could make travel safer, their effectiveness in the rate of transmission of the virus is still unclear. WHO issued a statement saying “At this point in the pandemic, there is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an “immunity passport” or “risk-free certificate.”
Dr Julie Parsonnet, an infectious disease specialist at Stanford University tells CNN "We still don't know if vaccinated people can transmit infection or not. Until that is clarified, we won't know whether 'passports' will be effective.”. So while you may be eager to book that flight ticket to your dream destination, it is best to hold off until officials come up with a more concrete and secure way to flying during these times.