Sarah Leamon: Vaccine-passport system must not leave the poor and immune-compromised left behind

If you don't have a personal health number, you're out of luck

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      B.C.’s vaccine passport system is now in effect. 

      This means that people over the age of 12 in British Columbia will be unable to access certain services and public spaces if they cannot show proof of vaccination. The program applies to nonessential services, such as restaurants and entertainment venues. 

      Government officials say that the program is necessary in order to ensure community safety and to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Other provinces, such as Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba, have also introduced similar programs, all aimed at curbing transmission and flattening the curve. 

      However, the plan remains controversial. While the vocal antivaccine minority has been very outspoken in their opposition to the program, there are also many who have legitimate concerns about equity and access, among other things. 

      The first potential concern with the vaccine passport program is that it makes no exception for those who are legitimately precluded from getting the vaccine for medical reasons. 

      While the vast majority of citizens can be vaccinated, a small minority of individuals are unable to get the jab due to serious, pre-existing medical conditions. 

      Those with severe allergies, particular types of cancer, and certain serious autoimmune diseases may be medically precluded from getting the vaccine.  It is reasonable for these people to hold off on vaccination—not because of ideological concerns but because of real medical concerns, rooted in medical science. 

      However, the vaccine passport program makes no exceptions or allowances for those who are medically precluded from being vaccinated. This, disability advocates and the Disability Alliance of B.C. argue, constitutes blatant discrimination against medically compromised and disabled people. 

      In addressing these concerns, Dr. Bonnie Henry has said that the government is working on addressing the challenges of medically compromised individuals but stated that it is only in “extremely rare circumstances” that a person is unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons.

      This is cold comfort for those who fall under such circumstances. 

      Another potential issue with the vaccine passport program has to do with how it is being rolled out. 

      Residents of B.C. need a personal health number to download the electronic card using a computer or smartphone or to order a paper copy through the mail. This vaccination card will be checked alongside a piece of government-issued photo identification.

      While this process may sound simple enough for most, it is not so simple for all. After all, adequate access to technology and/or proper government identification is not a luxury afforded to everyone. 

      Consider homeless people, displaced persons, those living in poverty, undocumented migrants, and people with serious disabilities, for example.  Already facing a number of significant barriers to access, these groups could struggle significantly in accessing and producing the necessary documentation to satisfy the passport program.  They are also some of the most marginalized people in society, and this program may only marginalize them further. 

      Imposing yet another barrier to access services may prove untenable for these marginalized individuals and could have the effect of excluding them from spaces where they should otherwise be able to properly access. 

      Finally, there are also significant concerns about the practical implementation of this program from business-owner perspectives. Ultimately, checking vaccination status cards and allowing—or denying—access to services will be left up to individual service providers. 

      Some business owners and employees have expressed concerns about becoming the target of frustration for those who oppose the system and refuse to be vaccinated.  Dealing with angry and potentially violent customers who could lash out as a result of being denied access or services could present real dangers for those tasked with the unlucky role of being on the front lines of this rollout. 

      With a duty to provide a safe workplace environment, employers may be required to invest in extra security or training to protect employees from a potential backlash. Some large restaurant groups have already invested in hiring specialized security guards. These security guards, they say, are necessary to mitigate their risk and shield against anticipated fall-out. 

      But smaller businesses, many of which are already suffering as a result of the pandemic and nearly two years of ongoing restrictions, may not have the same options. 

      After all, hiring additional security guards or providing additional training for existing employees is costly. Many small businesses may not have the budget to undertake these gargantuan tasks. Unable to opt out of this program or afford the additional costs of properly facilitating it could land already struggling businesses in an unwinnable catch-22 situation. It could have the practical effect of not helping them recover but of setting them back even further. 

      If the government sees this program as necessary to move into a post-pandemic future, it might be appropriate and advisable for officials to provide additional support to the small businesses that are expected to implement it. 

      All criticisms aside, however, there is little doubt that encouraging high rates of vaccination is imperative if we are to resume any ongoing semblance of normalcy in the coming months.  With evidence to suggest that the vaccine passport system will increase vaccination rates, acting as an incentive for many who have been vaccine hesitant in the past, it is likely to benefit society on a whole. 

      However, we should still be careful to make sure that no one is left behind—unless, of course, they chose to be.