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Nation’s First COVID-19 Passport in New York Faces Criticism

Steven Li, MD
Steven Li is a medical professional with a passion for lifelong learning and spreading truth to the world. He specializes in the fields of health and science.
Published: April 21, 2021
A person looks at the app for the New York State Excelsior Pass, which provides digital proof of a Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccination, on April 6, 2021.
A person looks at the app for the New York State Excelsior Pass, which provides digital proof of a Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccination, on April 6, 2021. (Image: CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)

At the end of March, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the launch of a new digital certificate called the “Excelsior Pass,” which offers proof of the user’s Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) test results and vaccination status. Event authorities justified the digital passport as a means to convince the public that safety measures are in place.

“Businesses and venues can scan and validate your pass to ensure you meet any COVID-19 vaccination or testing requirements for entry. Along with your Pass, you’ll be asked to show a photo ID that shows your name and birth date to verify that the Pass belongs to you. Adults may hold passes for accompanying minors,” states the official website.

“Once you and your party enter an establishment, you will still be asked to follow State and CDC guidance regarding social distancing, face coverings, and hand hygiene,” the instructions say. Currently, the state is offering three types of passes: a COVID-19 Vaccination Pass that is valid for a period of 30 days, a COVID-19 PCR Test Pass valid until midnight on the third day after the test, and a COVID-19 Antigen Test Pass, valid for six hours from the testing time. 

The Excelsior Pass, which is voluntary and free of charge, can be stored on a smartphone or printed out and brought to the venue. The system uses IBM’s digital health pass platform, which operates based on blockchain technology. Once the app is downloaded, users are asked to answer a number of personal questions.

According to the official website, medical data stored in the app will “not be used for sales or marketing purposes or shared with a third party.” Vaccination and testing data is pulled from the state’s vaccine registry and from a number of testing companies. While Cuomo claims that the COVID-19 passport offers a way for the state’s concert venues, sports arenas, and Broadway theaters to safely reopen, critics believe that their introduction may have unintended consequences.

Freedom to participate or discriminatory?

The idea of a vaccine passport raises serious concerns about discrimination, especially with a large proportion of the population that is still not vaccinated. If passports become the norm and the unvaccinated are not allowed to enter venues strictly based on the fact that they have not gotten an experimental vaccine that lacks U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, their basic rights would be violated.

Even if the government claimed to not force the jab on anyone, the passports could become so exclusionary that people would face intense pressure from family and friends. A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit states that the majority of adults in advanced nations could be vaccinated by mid-2022, but poorer nations would likely not meet this milestone until 2024.

Liberty, the UK’s largest civil liberties organization, points out that these passports would create a two-tiered discriminatory system even among people who wished to get vaccinated because of unequal access to vaccines. The passport could eventually become the foundation for human rights abuses.

“We should all be able to live our lives free from unnecessary interference – any form of immunity passport would rob us of that. And history tells us that once we give up these hard-won rights, we rarely get them back,” the organization said in a statement

“Even the introduction of a voluntary passport to prove if you’ve had a vaccine could result in many being blocked from essential public services, work, or housing. Meanwhile, once these passports have been created for one purpose – like travel – it would be all too easy for their use to be extended and abused,” the statement continues.

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