COVID-19 Vaccination “Passports” and the Government ID that Wasn’t
Vaccination cards, drivers licenses and one, giant, missed opportunity
COVID-19 vaccination is a miracle of science, but it is also perhaps the single largest, mass civil registration drive in history. Never before have billions of people around the world participated in a government registration activity all at the same time. Usually, governments are reluctant to register minorities, women, poor people and immigrants, less this registration lead inevitably to rights and political inclusion, but with COVID-19, the need to establish a baseline of vaccination for the coveted prize of herd immunity was so overwhelming, other considerations retreated into the background. For many people, their COVID-19 vaccine card may be the only piece of paper they have ever received from any government. Yet, once the pandemic is over, these cards will be mostly worthless to the millions of people worldwide who lack ID. This is a huge failure of imagination, a lack of understanding of the basics of leverage, and a real shame.
They’re even calling the d..m thing a “passport”
You’re probably used to using a drivers license as ID. You may never have stopped to ask, “what does my identity have to do with being able to drive?” Yet, the drivers license is ubiquitous with government ID all over the world. People who never drive bother to stand in line to get a license because they need it for ID. This raises the question of what other forms of registration might be used as ID, were humanity to collectively engage in a little bit of creative thinking? What about, for example, the COVID-19 vaccination card?
Why might COVID-19 registration matter for anything other than proving and tracking vaccination? Millions of people all over the world lack any and all identity documents. They have no birth certificates, no drivers licenses, no bank cards, nothing. Many undocumented people are also stateless and cannot establish their nationality. They have no rights. Having a government issued ID is a first step to having rights. It is, supposedly, a major goal of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the World Bank. Millions of dollars are being thrown at this problem because registering the “global unbanked,” as the World Bank calls them, requires money and time. It requires convincing recalcitrant governments to put names, birth dates and photos down on paper, acknowledging that people exist as human beings on a particular piece of earth and that, as a result, the government might have certain duties towards them. Yet, the world just missed out on one of the biggest opportunities to get a government ID into the hands of people who need one: COVID-19 vaccination.
When I first heard that the world was going to roll out a global vaccination program, my first thought was, what about undocumented and stateless people? Will people with no ID be able to get vaccinated? Will they be forced to the end of the line? Will they actually be prioritized as among the most vulnerable? But another, deeper thought took hold. What if COVID-19 vaccination could change the paradigm? What if vaccination cards, themselves, became a type of government-issued ID? Done properly, the cards could be used to register a cell phone, open a bank account, register for school, travel more easily or qualify for health care.
As it turns out, the vaccination program for people lacking ID has been a mixed bag. Many stateless and undocumented people are being left out of vaccination among shortages and questions about their eligibility. But some countries actually prioritized undocumented and stateless persons for vaccination. The overall outcome for stateless and undocumented people, however, has been negative, and one, giant, glaring negative has been the fact that vaccine registration, in and of itself, will get you nothing once the pandemic is over. There will be no lasting use for your vaccine card as a form of ID. I doubt I’d be able to use mine to get a library card, let alone qualify for a mortgage.
A Giant Missed Opportunity for the ID that Wasn’t
This missed opportunity is shameful because things could have been very different if governments had been forced to see COVID-19 vaccination cards as a unique opportunity to registered unregistered populations. Not only might this have improved uptake of vaccination among populations who are traditionally hesitant, it could have hugely reduced the number of people lacking ID. Yet, there was no public discussion of the use of COVID-19 vaccination cards as ID.
Why? I don’t have a clear answer, but I can make an educated guess. Civil registration is inherently political, while public health is usually (incorrectly, as the pandemic itself has shown) thought of as a-political. Traditionally, vaccination drives are conducted as independently as possible from civil registration drives. “Privacy concerns” became a major focus of vaccination drives, even though anyone who pays taxes has already given the government reams of highly sensitive personal information, while the fact that many people need more government recognition, not less, was overlooked. Even though we can all be track by Google on our phones, the idea of putting personal information on our vaccine cards and apps was met with outrage.
Most countries therefore opted for a separate, unique COVID-19 vaccination card or phone app and many promised not to keep permanent records of vaccination or to keep as little information as possible. Unlike drivers licenses, these cards and apps usually exist entirely separately from other forms of government registration. They cannot be used as ID, nor do they have a photo or any other personal information that might help them be used as ID.
What this represents is perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in the entire history of the right to a legal identity, or the right to be recognized as a person before the law. This debacle of inside-the-tiny-box thinking happened under the nose of the very organizations tasked with fixing global, civil registration. Instead of asking how the pandemic could be leveraged to force governments to do their jobs, the UN remains laser focused on birth certificates as the best means to register existence on earth with governments, while the World Bank is similarly obsessed with banking access, without asking whether broadening the types of ID accepted by banks could help solve the problem. Much of the money and time being spent on civil registration is spent on fancy tech, which is presented as innovation, but usually runs up against the problem that governments are reluctant to register minorities, immigrants, women and other marginalized groups and people, or recognize all but a small handful of very specific types of documents.
Given the slow roll out of COVID-19 vaccination in many countries and the likely need for booster shots, there is still a lot of room for the UN and the World Bank to get this right. I don’t need another form of ID. When the pandemic is over, my COVID-19 vaccine card can go in a file to collect dust. But many people don’t have that luxury. They need an ID that works, and a vaccine card with a photo, their name and date of birth that is a recognized form of ID by their government, something akin to a drivers license, would be a good place to start.