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Littwin: Vaccine passports are coming, but you may have to cross battle lines to get them

Yes, there are real privacy concerns here, but that’s not necessarily why the passports have become another front in the culture wars.

It looks as if the next big battle in the never-ending culture wars — beyond whether to boycott baseball games and other “woke” corporations like, you know, nutritionally-woke Coca-Cola — is the question of vaccine passports.

Like most such battles, this one has little to do with actual policy and everything to do with our raw, divisive politics of the day, generally expressed in terms of, uh, freedom — unless, that is, you’re a “woke” corporation freely expressing the idea that it’s not only the right thing to do, but also good business policy, to condemn voter suppression. 

In maybe the funniest anti-wokeness moment to date, Mitch McConnell announced that corporations should “stay out” of politics, before having to come back the next day to clarify that he didn’t mean corporations should stop writing those massive campaign contribution checks. As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait points out, corporate money is speech, but speech isn’t speech. 

Mike Littwin

Nearly as funny is Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s threat, in blasting “woke corporations,” to propose a bill next that would break up giant corporations that have benefited over the years from government largesse. Will he include non-woke corporations in that bill? I mean, if he did, he might get Bernie Sanders as a co-sponsor.

The thing about these wars is, they never end. Naturally, we’re still fighting the mask-mandate wars — the most absurd culture war battle since the phony-baloney war on Christmas. To the dismay of Dr. Fauci and others in the medical science world, the masks and the mandates are currently being routed across the country.

In Colorado, Jared Polis seems more intent on staying in his comfort zone — of recommending wearing masks more than mandating. The mask mandate is still in place across the state, but let’s just say in some places it’s not exactly emphasized and could disappear altogether. That’s despite the fact that Polis tells us the fourth coronavirus wave has arrived, hospitalizations are trending up, those 18 to 50 are now the group being targeted by the virus and are in the greatest need of getting vaccinated, and at least half of the new cases are COVID-19 variants that seem to be more contagious. This is yet another serious moment, among many others, in the fight against the pandemic. 

It is Polis’ mantra, of course, and rightly so, that we should still wear masks — especially those not fully vaccinated — still socially distance, but he’ll still leave it up to the local jurisdictions to make their own recommendations on how crowded restaurants and bars should be. I don’t know why we’d loosen any restrictions at this point or why, at this point, it’s better to trust local officials — let’s take Weld County, just as an example — to make decisions that could affect an entire region of the state.

To understand the problem, just take a look at this latest YouGov poll. About 30% of Americans are what the pollsters call “vaccine rejectors.” And of that group, just over half rarely or never wear masks in public, and 41% are not worried at all that they might contract the virus. And then there’s this: half of rejectors think it’s safe to travel now, compared to 29% of vaccinated adults. 

Of course, there is a legitimate difference between mask mandates and COVID vaccine mandates, including privacy concerns involving vaccines. I mean, how often do you get a notice from, say, your credit card company that some of your personal information might have been hacked? How little do we actually know about how our personal information, gathered by Big Tech, is being sold off? How creepy is that you can do a search on your computer, and a minute later, see Google ads pop up on your screen for a long list of similar products?

▶︎ Read more of Mike Littwin’s columns.

The other difference is that there will be no governmental vaccination mandates. The Biden administration has said it wants nothing to do with it. Polis has said much the same for Colorado. The real issue is in so-called vaccine passports, which, we’re told, might be more palatable if they were called “vaccine credentials.” These credentials could be used by businesses, much as masks have been used by businesses, to limit the spread of the virus. Some businesses are requiring proof of vaccinations already for entry.

The fact is that we need to incentivize getting the vaccine. As of now, we can’t even get many health care workers to take the shots, even though they are our best path out of the pandemic morass. And the Biden administration is working on incentives and says it will help in developing guidelines for a credential that would ensure privacy and put other safeguards in place.

I get that there are concerns. I have concerns. The best approach might be to, uh, figure out the best way to address those concerns. Or, I guess, another option would be to exploit the concerns for your own political ends.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that privacy concerns are what caused Texas and Florida governors to issue anti-mandate executive orders (which you could, I guess, call mandates themselves). It was done for the same reason that, against all health-community advice, the governors of Texas and Florida are among those who have removed all COVID restrictions in the midst of the battle to return to normalcy. If these guys had been running World War II, they would have left France a week after D-Day.

It seems clear that the vaccines are working. It seems clear that getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible is critical. It seems we’re in a race with a more contagious variant — which is becoming omnipresent — but one that the current vaccines are apparently able to handle. 

It makes sense that vaccine requirements would help businesses attract hesitant customers on, say, airplanes and cruise ships or in gyms and movie theaters or ball parks and sports arenas. Do you use TSA PreCheck to move through the airport security lines more quickly? I do. Do you worry about privacy when you use it? I do. 

New York has something called an Excelsior Pass, a vaccine verification that it is making freely available in case businesses demand some verification. Walmart is offering vaccination status reports for those who get vaccinated in their stores. We have on one hand the miracle of these vaccines. We have on the other — or in my case, in my wallet — a flimsy piece of paper showing I’ve gotten both shots, although Staples and Office Depot do offer free laminations.

The real damage from this particular culture-war battle is that the only way to guarantee privacy and combat abuse in any kind of vaccine credential is for governments to be involved in setting standards. I’m hardly an expert in these matters, but there is much here that is obvious. The question is not only privacy, for which the government could set strict rules about compliance.

Another question is whether companies can mandate vaccinations for their employees. I’m not concerned so much about the anti-vaxxers — and there would be medical exemptions, surely — as I am about the sad fact of unequal access to vaccines. Nobody’s job should be put at risk because of a lack of access. Businesses that require vaccines could, as an example, be required to offer vaccines. And there should be limitations according to the size of businesses. 

Another problem. Most of the ideas for credentials are based on use of smartphones. This may shock you, but not everyone has a smartphone. 

Making a credential that people would trust and no one could exploit and that would be universally available cannot be easy. Of course nothing about the pandemic, which has cost the lives of more than a half-million Americans, has been easy. 

But one thing that is easy to figure out is that fighting senseless culture-war battles, even as we wage war on a deadly pandemic, makes everything that much harder.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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