An injection of tyranny: from vaccine passports to digital IDs?

The imposition of vaccine passports represents a major expansion of state power. While they are portrayed as a means of restoring pre-pandemic freedoms, in reality they will extend restrictions on people who refuse to comply.

There is also evidence that vaccine passports form part of a wider agenda to introduce biometric digital identity systems. The EU was already making plans for vaccine passports in 2018, long before anyone had heard of Covid-19. And there are other disturbing initiatives, such as ID2020, backed by powerful transnational foundations with deep links to Western governments.

The UK appears to be following a similar path domestically, embarking on a digital identity programme and undermining civil liberties more generally. There was a previous attempt to impose ID cards under Tony Blair and support for their high-tech successors clearly remains strong within the establishment.

The agenda is proceeding particularly quickly in developing countries, where – often funded by Western governments and foundations – digital ID systems are being rolled out to control access to essential services and even food.

In this context, vaccine passports can be interpreted as a stepping stone towards comprehensive digital IDs, a way of getting the public and businesses used to presenting and accepting them.

Such IDs will hold not just health records, but also financial information, biometric details and other data on individuals. They will obviously be terrible news for privacy, but they could also be made mandatory for voting, access to jobs and bank accounts, to rent housing, conduct transactions, obtain health services etc.

They would enable governments to exclude people who refuse to take part in the system and also people who carry the IDs but upset the “elite” in some way. Dissidents could find their access to basic services switched off, both to punish them and nudge them to comply.

The imposition of vaccine passports might be less worrying if it wasn’t taking place in the context of rapidly expanding state surveillance. Suspicions about governments’ real motives are raised further by the weakness of the health arguments for the policy.

It has now been openly admitted that a key reason for vaccine passports is to encourage young people to get injected. This is basically a threat: if you don’t get jabbed you won’t be able to travel easily and you won’t be able to go to bars and restaurants.

The problem is that for the vast majority of younger people, it is far from clear that the benefits of the shots outweigh the costs. At present no one knows the long-term effects of either the jabs or Covid-19, so policymakers are groping around in the dark. It’s also unclear to what extent these unconventional treatments prevent transmission. And there’s a further danger that the jabs will encourage people to behave more recklessly.

A plausible scenario is that the injections prove less effective than hoped at preventing illness and transmission. It may also become clear that the side effects are worse and more frequent than initially acknowledged by governments and the media. At the same time, the jabs and related misinformation may encourage recipients to behave as if they can’t catch Covid-19 and can’t pass it on. Such developments could at least partly undermine the stated policy objectives, and the vaccine passports agenda would be partly to blame.

Finally, any assessment of vaccine passports should examine their economic impact. It might be assumed that a certain percentage of the population will refuse the injections, perhaps because they are at low risk of either catching Covid-19 or falling seriously ill with it.

Say 10% of adults fall into this category, plus a significant percentage of children (the figure is likely to be significantly higher in some countries). Many of the businesses forced to require vaccine passports as a condition of entry will face reduced revenues. A lot of people won’t bother going through the hassle of testing, if that is the alternative. Moreover, the unjabbed won’t be distributed evenly across areas, age groups and subcultures, so certain businesses in certain areas are likely to be particularly badly affected.

Some businesses may, however, see the trade-off more positively if they view the alternative as a return to lockdown or other restrictions. Yet presenting vaccine passports as alternatives to lockdowns and social distancing relies on highly questionable assumptions about the effects of the shots on infection, transmission and behaviour. In any case, given their recent authoritarian turn, it is possible that governments will simultaneously impose both vaccine passports and draconian lockdowns this winter.

The impact of vaccine passports on the labour market is likely to be particularly serious. It looks like certain jobs will be denied to people who refuse the injections. They will find it difficult to travel overseas too. Certain employers will therefore face a reduced pool of skills and talent, potentially resulting in recruitment difficulties and staff shortages. It will be harder to get the best person for a particular role.

The opportunities for people to engage in entrepreneurship and exchanges with partners in other countries will also be diminished. Some of the uninjected may decide to reduce their economic activity in response to all the hassle and discrimination. These effects will tend to have a negative effect on productivity and therefore tend to reduce growth in output, harming government finances in the process.

In conclusion, it is far from clear that any benefits of vaccine passports will outweigh the costs. Indeed, if the objective of vaccine passports is to protect health while opening up the economy, then the reasoning behind the policy appears to be flawed. It is difficult to imagine that political leaders, or at least their advisors and officials, are unaware of the downsides. This strengthens the suspicion that there is more to vaccine passports than meets the eye. Could their real purpose be to condition the public into accepting the widespread and routine use of privacy-destroying digital IDs?

First published on the Transport Watch blog.

About Richard Wellings
Libertarian and Austrian economist.

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