Israel pulls the trigger on immunity passports

Back in December, I expressed concerns over the possibility, if not likelihood, that we were heading toward a “two-tier society” comprised of those with and without immunity to COVID. Those with antibodies, either through surviving the disease or receiving a vaccination, would be considerably more free to live a normal life than those without. Of course, citizens would need some way to prove that they were immune, driving the need for some sort of “immunity passport” that would be recognized wherever they wanted to go to engage with the rest of society.

Now, not even three months later, that brave new world is upon us with the arrival of green “vaccination passports” in Israel. The Associated Press covered a concert taking place in Tel Aviv on Monday night. 300 people gathered in a venue above a shopping mall to listen to a performance by Israeli musician Aviv Geffen. He kicked off the performance by telling the audience, “A miracle is happening here tonight.”

But the miracle wasn’t happening for everyone. The only people allowed into the venue were those presenting their green vaccination passports. Anyone without the document and seeking entry was turned away.

Only people displaying a “green passport” that proved they had been vaccinated or had recovered from COVID-19 could get in.

The highly controlled concert offered a glimpse of a future that many are longing for after months of COVID-19 restrictions. Governments say getting vaccinated and having proper documentation will smooth the way to travel, entertainment and other social gatherings in a post-pandemic world.

But it also raises the prospect of further dividing the world along the lines of wealth and vaccine access, creating ethical and logistical issues that have alarmed decision-makers around the world.

I’m going to commit the cardinal sin of editing by quoting myself here and repeat something that I wrote in that December article I linked above.

If you don’t qualify for an immunity passport for whatever reason, you could be barred from going to school, holding a job, boarding a plane, or taking any other public transportation systems. You could be banned from stores, bars, restaurants, or virtually any other aspect of public society. You could fall under laws mandating face masks or even quarantine conditions while your fellow citizens with passports will be free to go about their business in the usual fashion.

Compare that paragraph to the Associated Press description of that concert in Tel Aviv. The future is flying at us so quickly these days there won’t be any time to duck.

The Israeli government isn’t making any effort to sugarcoat this, by the way. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein is quoted as saying that anyone who is unable or unwilling to get the vaccination will be “left behind.” He went on to say that this is “really the only way forward at the moment.”

In case any Israeli citizens are thinking of slipping through the cracks, that won’t be easy. The country passed a law this week altering certain privacy regulations regarding medical information, allowing for the release of information about people’s vaccination status to multiple ministries and local governments. They say it’s being done to allow local officials to “encourage people to get vaccinated.” But the information is also obviously being used to control the flow of vaccination passports and keep tabs on those who lack immunity.

Isreal moved almost immediately to set up a program with Greece, allowing the two nations to recognize each other’s “Green Pass” documents to open up travel for tourism. Spain already has such a program in place and Great Britain is investigating the possibilities.

Some of you may be thinking that the United States government couldn’t get away with something like this, right? We do have more constitutionally mandated rights than most of our European (or Israeli) friends, but it wouldn’t take a federal law to regulate the movement of citizens based on immunity passports. The major airlines are already setting up a system to do it for Uncle Sam. Other transportation industries are working on similar restrictions. When the shutdowns of bars and restaurants are finally lifted entirely, don’t be shocked if you need a second form of “ID” to get in the door.

I’ll close by revisiting that quote from the Israeli Health Minister because I think he’s hit the crux of this debate. It’s a sentiment worth keeping in mind as we wrestle with the question of whether or not this is a level of government intrusion that we’re going to be willing to tolerate. “Anyone who is unable or unwilling to get the vaccination will be left behind.”