Despite Noisy Protests in Rich Countries Over COVID Passes – New Rules May Prompt More People to Get the Jab
Protesters and police clashed during a march against France’s health pass, which requires proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative test to enter many public venues.

As more high income countries adopt COVID-19 passes for entry to venues like sporting and cultural events, restaurants and even workplaces, public opposition to the use of the public health tool is also growing – despite the fact that these same countries enjoy very widespread access to vaccines and rapid COVID tests. 

However, countries like France and Italy, which saw noisy demonstrations over the passes last weekend, are now registering record numbers of registrations for vaccines – suggesting that the new measures may also be effective in convincing the vaccine-hesitant to finally get their jab.

The passes are being touted by over a dozen European governments as a way to reopen economies and societies despite the sharp, recent rises in new COVID cases, driven by the steady global spread of the more contagious Delta variant.

In Europe, uptake of domestic passes follow on the European Union-wide adoption of the COVID Digital Certificate  on 1 July, to ease restrictions on international travel within the EU and beyond, but verifying an individual’s vaccination status, recent negative test result, or recovery from a COVID infection.

Some 13 EU member states have now established plans to extend the COVID pass system for domestic use. The new rules typically require digital or paper documentation of a certificate before entry into bars, restaurants, museums, indoor sports venues, and other cultural or entertainment sites.  

Denmark, Austria, Cyprus, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Ireland, and Slovenia are among those who are already enforcing domestic health passes. 

Switzerland, which is part of the European Schengen free travel zone, has meanwhile, only implemented such a pass system for large scale events with over 1,000 participants and nightclubs. For smaller events, as well as restaurants, sporting, cultural, and leisure facilities, the use of a COVID pass is discretionary. 

The United Kingdom also is discussing implementing a vaccine pass system for large scale indoor events by the end of September. Israel, which abandoned virtually all COVID restrictions after a mass vaccination campaign pushed new cases to nearly zero, has now re-instituted its Green Pass programme for virtually all indoor venues in the face of new infections that now exceed 1000 people a day.   

Some US states & employers will require proof of vaccination

The Biden Administration ruled out introducing mandatory federal vaccine passes in the US in early April, but some states have decided to introduce their own measures. California and New York will require state employees and healthcare workers to show proof of vaccination or get tested weekly. Unvaccinated health workers will be required to wear a face mask.  Google and Facebook also announced Wednesday that they would require vaccines for workers at US offices. 

California plans to implement the measures in early August, while New York will adopt them in mid-September.

“It’s like drunk drivers, you don’t have the right to go out and drink and drive and put everybody else at risk, including your own life at risk,” said Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, at a press briefing on Monday. “Those non-pharmaceutical interventions like face coverings and masking were necessary in the absence of vaccines, but with these vaccines, we can extinguish this virus once and for all.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs one of the nation’s largest health systems, announced on Monday that it would mandate vaccines for healthcare personnel working in Veterans Health Administration facilities. Also on Monday, nearly 60 major health care professional organizations released a joint statement calling for all health care employers to require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Protestors decry ‘discrimination’ – but move is incentivizing vaccination   

Switzerland, which is part of the Schengen area, has implemented a pass system for large scale events with over 1,000 participants.

Protests over the passes have erupted almost everywhere where the measure has been introduced – with particularly noisy outcries seen over last weekend in Europe, from Paris to Rome and other major cities across Italy – on city streets that were largely empty only a year ago, under a COVID-imposed lockdown.

But at least half a million vaccination appointments were made within 24 hours of the first Italian announcement of the green pass measure. The pass, to take effect on 6 August, will also be available to those who have only received one vaccine jab. 

“We registered an increase in bookings ranging from +15% to +200% depending on the region,” said Francesco Figliuolo, Italy’s COVID-19 Emergency Commissioner, on an Italian TV news show Tg5. “In Friuli Venezia Giulia we registered +6,000%.”

The new Italian pass announced last week, would be needed to enter gyms, swimming pools, museums, cinemas, theatres, sports stadiums, and indoor seating in bars and restaurants.

“The Green Pass is not arbitrary, but a necessary condition not to shut down the economy,” said Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi at a press conference on Thursday. “Without vaccinations, everything will have to close again,” he added.

Freedom or ‘selfishness’

In France, the Senate approved a bill on Saturday to introduce mandatory vaccination requirements for certain professions, notably healthcare workers – who must be vaccinated by 15 September. As for the general public, a health pass showing proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test would be required for adults to gain access to indoor dining and leisure spaces from the beginning of August. A pass showing proof of a negative COVID test will be required for children over the age of 12 from the end of September. 

France’s new mandatory health pass will be required to enter restaurants, bars, theatres, and museums, among other venues.

While over 160,000 French demonstrators took to the streets at the same time – it was clear that the new policy is prompting record numbers of people to book vaccination appointments. Some 1.7 million appointments were made  in just the first 24 hours following President Macron’s initial speech on the COVID pass initiative, and 3.7 million were booked in the first week after he spoke in mid-July,

“You will have understood that vaccination is not obligatory straight away, but we are going to extend the health pass to its maximum to encourage as many of you as possible to get yourselves vaccinated,” said Macron in a televised address

Overall, there has been a 59% weekly increase in turnout for first doses, reported one French analyst, Guillaume Rozier. 

While protestors have even cloaked their opposition to the passes in the charged language and symbols of racist Nazi exclusion during World War II, such as the yellow star, public health and government officials have stressed exactly the opposite message.

In fact, they say, COVID passes are an example of the kind of social solidarity, and mutual responsibility of one citizen for another, that is required to beat the pandemic.

“What is your freedom worth if you say to me ‘I don’t want to be vaccinated,’ but tomorrow you infect your father, your mother or myself?” French President Emmauel Macron told the press, during a visit to a hospital in French Polynesia on Saturday.

“That is not freedom, that is irresponsibility and selfishness.” 

More demonstrations are planned in towns and cities across France on Saturday 31 July, the largest of which are expected to take place in Paris. Some 3,000 police officers will be deployed to the capital, where more than 10,000 people are expected to join four protests.

Green passes could be as effective as lockdowns, says one public health expert 

Several countries have arranged to implement a domestic vaccine pass to regulate entry into certain venues.

The “extended use [of the health pass] has not yet been evaluated, but it could prove to be as effective as lockdown, since it amounts to confining all the non-vaccinated who will not have access to bars, restaurants, cultural, social, sporting and festive life, unless they present negative tests every 48 hours,” Antoine Flahault, Director of the University of Geneva’s Global Health Institute told Euronews

“And the extended use of the health pass is much less socially and economically punishing [compared to lockdowns],” Flahault added. “We will soon know if it keeps its promises and avoids the saturation of French and Italian hospitals.”

Debate over COVID certificates is ‘like a debate over deck chairs on the Titantic’ 

Other observers point out that the debate over the COVID passes is largely a luxury of the rich – living in societies with enough access to vaccines and tests so that they can indeed be required of every citizen.  But green passes won’t extricate the world from the pandemic – in the absence of low vaccine access in low and middle-income countries.

“I am very troubled about the widespread ignorance in Europe and Switzerland over the problem of global vaccine inequity,” Dr Sara L.M. Davis, Senior Researcher at the Global Health Center, told Health Policy Watch. Over 75% of the 3.5 billion vaccines distributed globally have gone to just ten countries, she points out.

And globally, new cases are now increasing at worrisome rates with the highly transmissible Delta variant sweeping across the world, and cases rising again in the Americas, European and Western Pacific regions, with particular hotspots in countries such as the United Kingdom, Indonesia and Brazil. 

Africa has been in the midst of its worst wave to date. And at the same time, only 1.6% of the population of Africa have been fully vaccinated, as compared to 37% of the population in Europe and North America.  With such low vaccination rates in so many parts of the world, the virus will continue to propagate and spur more new and potentially dangerous variants – no matter what measures are taken in Europe, experts such as Davis warn. 

“Under these circumstances, I think debating the use of vaccine certificates to access restaurants or nightclubs for me and my friends in Switzerland is a little like debating the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Unless we have global vaccine justice we’ll all be underwater,” said Davis. 

Image Credits: DW News, Al Jazeera English.

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