Why India Must Give Covid-19 ‘Vaccine Passports’
A sign hangs outside a barber’s shop in London, on Oct. 12, 2020. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

Why India Must Give Covid-19 ‘Vaccine Passports’

BloombergQuintOpinion

Else, Costs & Hesitancy Will Mount.

I got my first jab in early March. Excitedly, I exhorted the government to “give me a vaccine passport because I now had the antibodies”. Surprisingly, I got a bit of pushback from readers who berated me for “being half knowledgeable, since you can get Covid-19 and/or infect others by being an asymptomatic carrier even after getting vaccinated”. But I already knew that. I wasn’t saying “let me loose, I don’t need to wear a mask or be socially distant or follow any safety protocol”.

Why India Must Give Covid-19 ‘Vaccine Passports’

What Is A ‘Vaccine Passport’, Defined Simply?

However, since my readers had misunderstood what I was asking for, I was at fault. So, let me try again, more colloquially, chronologically:

  • What is a ‘vaccine passport’? It’s simply a legal authorisation that permits the holder to do something – like travel or sit physically among a group of people, say, at a restaurant or stadium – because s/he has undergone a medical procedure that has significantly lowered the risk of getting or transmitting the Covid-19 virus.

  • Of course, the whole discourse around a ‘vaccine passport’ has become pretty dense – how it should be administered via a real-time app accessing QR-coded data from a secure backend server to check whether the passport holder has been vaccinated using a standard international protocol – which makes it sound far more complex and intimidating than it actually is! At its core, a ‘vaccine passport’ is just a simple legal authorisation.

  • In that sense, what is an RT-PCR test? When the rules say that “you will have to produce a negative report before you can enter Mumbai or a mall or a film shoot’’, you are already using the negative RT-PCR test report as a vaccine passport’.

  • What’s more, we have been issuing and using the ‘negative RT-PCR vaccine passport’ for almost a year now. So, please don’t fret about some new-fangled invention that is being pre-maturely triggered by recklessly optimistic people (like yours truly), who, in their “half knowledgeable excitement”, could reignite the virus.

No ma’am, the ‘vaccine passport’ is almost as old as the Covid-19 virus; so, no need to be scared of the unknown here.

Also, ‘Vaccine Passports’ Do Not Discriminate

But there are two principal objections to issuing a 'vaccine passport'. First, people say it’s discriminatory, since you would be compelling those who may be medically unfit or are “conscientious objectors, anti-vaxxers”. Again, no ma’am, this is plain wrong.

Anybody who does not want or is unable to take the shot can still get his/her passport via the negative RT-PCR test, so nobody is denied nothing.

The second objection, that “you could still be a carrier after being vaccinated”, is impractically hypothetical. After all, you could pick up the infection in the 72 hours between taking the RT-PCR test and alighting at Mumbai airport. If that is acceptable as a ‘low-probability event’, then equally, we should accept the ‘you are vaccinated but could still be infected’ situation as highly unlikely, i.e. a threshold risk that we should be willing to live with.

Not A Single Downside, Only Significant Upsides

Why am I pushing so hard for an automatic ‘vaccine passport’ for people who’ve completed the regimen (currently, two doses at the stipulated interval for Covishield or Covaxin)? Especially now when the country is threatened by a severe second wave? Because there is not a single downside, but significant upsides, if we were to take a quick call here:

  • We are just days away from hitting the 10 crore vaccination mark – which would mean that almost one in every four vulnerable adults would be reasonably protected. Further, a large fraction of these ‘early adopters’ could be from urban areas with sufficient savings and disposable incomes.

  • Now imagine that one-tenth of these people may want to travel overseas. Under current rules, they would have to take at least two domestic RT-PCR tests, that is, about 2 crore tests would need to be done. At Rs 1,000 apiece, that’s an expense of Rs 2,000 crore. How unnecessary and utterly wasteful!

  • Now also think that one-fifth, or 2 crore of these people may want to visit their children/relatives within the country. That could mean another 8 crore tests – i.e., Rs 8,000 crore down the drain!

  • And who can grudge the almost-forgotten weekend outing to a mall or theatre to lockdown-aggrieved citizens? So, get ready for 8 crore more tests and another Rs 8,000 crore burnt for nothing.

Finally, I can bet that ‘vaccine passports’ will be far more potent in overcoming hesitancy than a Bachchan-Khan-Kohli-Taapsee/Kangana jingle. Because who would want frequent, painful nose jabs @ Rs 1,000/shove, when two shots will rid them of this periodic trauma?

‘Vaccine Passports’ Will Release Huge Resources For Inoculation

So, you get my drift, right?

In our fairly realistic illustration above, nearly Rs 18,000 crore of duplicated, wasteful expenses can be avoided if we just allow the vaccine certificate to substitute for the negative RT-PCR test.

Juxtapose this against the Rs 35,000 crore that the central government has earmarked for its entire Covid-19 vaccination programme? Shouldn’t extra resources be diverted for vaccine production instead of getting wasted in conducting unnecessary RT-PCR tests?

Remember, when 40 crore people are vaccinated, this waste will quadruple, shoving Rs 72,000 crore down the drain … unless we permit vaccine passports at double trot.

Israel, the European Union, Thailand, New York, Japan … all of them are energetically rolling out ‘vaccine passports’. C’mon India, don’t be flat-footed in this critical race to tame the virus.

Postscript: Lest I am misunderstood again, let me reiterate. All ‘vaccine passport’ holders shall be required to wear masks and scrupulously observe all safety protocols. It’s not going to be a free for all!

Raghav Bahl is Co-Founder – The Quint Group including BloombergQuint. He is the author of three books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’, and ‘Super Century: What India Must Do to Rise by 2050’.

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