A year after the outbreak of the corona crisis, healthcare policy must adapt. As the number of immune and vaccinated people increases daily, more nuanced approaches are needed, rather than widespread closures.
Currently, the idea of a vaccination passport, or an immunity certificate, is gaining ground. But while the European Union is planning to introduce its “Covid-19 health pass”, political debate in Switzerland about such a measure is just beginning. Critics say it could introduce “privileges”, create “discrimination” or widen the gap between generations “if vaccinated pensioners waved to young people from restaurant terraces.”
Equality and solidarity certainly matter, but, in this context, they are often approached the wrong way. Holders of an immunity certificate would get nothing new, no privileges, but regain their basic rights instead. Freedom of movement and of assembly are enshrined in the Swiss constitution, and the state may deprive citizens of such rights only when laws expressly provide for it.
Comprehensive restrictions were understandable during the first wave. But things have changed fundamentally since a growing part of the population has been vaccinated, or immunized by the disease. So the tables have been turned: before, it was up to the individual to prove the right to be exempted from state restrictions; now it is now up to the state to justify the withdrawal of fundamental rights.
Neither is it discriminatory when holders of immunity certificates are allowed to visit relatives in nursing homes, are exempted from quarantine measures, or can participate in sporting and cultural events. To constitute discrimination, the certificate would have to create a disadvantage for those who do not hold one. At present, however, no one can go to a restaurant or attend a concert. Thus, by easing the restrictions for holders of an immunity certificate, the non-immunized are not being punished – their situation remains the same.
It is certainly frustrating that not everyone who wants to be vaccinated can be gratified immediately. But it makes no sense to deny freedom to the immunized just because not everyone can be freed from the risk of infection. It would be equally unsatisfactory to deny immunization to high-risk groups until sufficient vaccine was available for all.
A core principle of equality is that the state should not treat identical situations differently, nor treat unequal ones identically. Vaccinated or immunized individuals are different from others because, in all likelihood, they no longer pose a threat to public health.
No generational clash
Keeping restaurants, theaters, and stadiums closed for all would not eliminate the intergenerational gap either, even if older (i.e. vaccinated) people enjoyed earlier access to such facilities. The opposite is true: employees in facilities affected by forced closure are often young people. Accepting re-enrollment for a portion of the population provides them with an income and ensures social contacts that are important for their mental health.
Certification of immunity is not a panacea either. But it will be one tool among others on a gradual return to normality. It is therefore crucial that our politicians establish the legal framework on this issue as quickly as possible. The withdrawal of pandemic measures must begin before the entire population has been vaccinated. We cannot afford another government failure in the fight against the pandemic (following suboptimal vaccine supply policies and poor foresight in planning vaccination campaigns).
Switzerland’s European neighbors, Israel and Asian countries like Singapore have understood this. Like it or not, the vaccination train is rolling and picking up speed. We can either watch it pass and ponder the disastrous social and economic consequences of lockdown. Or we can take the bull by the horns and introduce a digital instrument compatible with those of other countries. This could enable our society not to eradicate the virus, but to live better with it.
This article was published in french in “Le Temps” on March 15, 2021.