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Opinion Don’t believe conservative fearmongering over vaccine passports

A man presents his “green pass,” proof that he is vaccinated against the coronavirus, in Jerusalem. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)
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In Israel, where over half the population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, people are eagerly going back to restaurants, gyms and theaters. In many cases, all they need to do is flash a “green pass,” also called a vaccine passport (you can get it on paper or on your smartphone) and they’re free to do almost all the things they haven’t been able to do for the past year.

People there seem to love it. The European Union is also planning to create a vaccine passport to enable travel between countries.

Now, a vaccine passport might be coming to the United States. And conservatives are up in arms at this supposedly terrifying new threat to the freedom they always believe is moments away from being stolen from them.

There are some legitimate questions about how worthwhile and practical vaccine passports would be in a country the size of the United States. But some on the right clearly see this as an opportunity to stir up culture-war anger and continue their revisionist history project around the covid-19 pandemic.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

How can you tell? Because so much of what they’re saying about vaccine passports is so dumb.

As of now, multiple private and nonprofit organizations and coalitions are working to develop standards that a passport could use. The administration is trying to coordinate these efforts, but if a passport comes to fruition it “will be driven by the private sector,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “Ours will more be focused on guidelines that can be used as a basis.”

That in itself makes it a challenge, since the utility of a passport would depend on its being simple and universally available. If there were a dozen different kinds of passports, it would make it harder for businesses to use them to screen customers.

So it’s too soon to know what such a system would look like, even if it did manage to get up and running. But right-leaning libertarians are already expressing dismay:

Call me crazy, but I’d say 550,000 Americans dying of the coronavirus is a tad more “dystopian” than getting your smartphone scanned on your way into the gym.

Some are going even further. “Proposals like these smack of 1940s Nazi Germany. We must make every effort to keep America from becoming a ‘show your papers society,’” said Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), drawing on his deep knowledge of Nazi Germany. Because flashing your smartphone on the way into a movie is just like the Holocaust, apparently.

But shouldn’t we be worried about privacy? Wouldn’t it be “a massive bio-surveillance system,” in the words of one conservative columnist? The truth is that the privacy implications of vaccine passports are somewhat larger than zero, but way, way smaller than plenty of other intrusions on privacy that almost all of us — especially conservatives — accept every day.

First, it seems that the primary information contained within whatever system got established would essentially be a binary, zero-one piece of data, saying only whether you have been vaccinated. It wouldn’t monitor where you’ve been or what you’ve done.

And if you’re worried about your movements being tracked, I have some very bad news about that phone in your pocket.

But this is coercive, some will say. There are places I wouldn’t be able to go unless I were vaccinated! That’s true — although in many cases, it would probably mean you wouldn’t be able to go there unless you put on a mask, which is exactly what you have to do now.

And we coerce people all the time, especially when we’ve decided it’s necessary to keep them from hurting others. Forcing you to take a driving test before you get a license — and forcing you to carry that license in case a law enforcement official wants to see it — is coercive. But we do it. We force children to get a range of vaccines before they’re allowed to attend school with other children.

Conservatives, furthermore, are happy to require people to show a very specific ID before they’re allowed to vote. They would also like to see every employer use a federal government database known as E-Verify to check your citizenship status before they’ll hire you; Republican hero Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill mandating just that in Florida.

So if I’m a restaurant owner, should I have the right to say, “Since we’re still in a pandemic, for the next six months I’m only allowing in-person dining for those who have been vaccinated”? If you cry, “But you’re infringing on my freedom!”, I’d respond that you’re free to refuse the vaccine (or to get takeout), but I’m also free to make sure my restaurant is safe for my customers and staff.

And yes, in the short term, life could become more pleasant for those who have been vaccinated, granting them privileges not available to the refusers. Which is exactly the point.

In part, the objections are just something else for conservatives to complain about, a way to claim once again that they’re being victimized and oppressed. But this is also yet another battle in the war over our collective pandemic memory.

They’d like everyone to believe President Donald Trump did a great job managing the coronavirus pandemic, it was never a big deal in the first place, only wimps are willing to sacrifice for our collective well-being, and our greatest political heroes should be those who ignored and denied it. That’s not even mentioning the QAnon faction, which will no doubt see a vaccine passport as the Mark of the Beast.

To be clear, I remain skeptical about the practical challenges in rolling out a vaccine passport system quickly in this vast country. Perhaps it would only bring the end of the pandemic a tiny bit closer. But just as I’ll be making my appointment to get vaccinated the first day I can, if a vaccine passport does get created, you can sign me up.

Read more:

Michael Gerson: The GOP is facing a sickness deeper than the coronavirus

Matt Bai: The Birx dilemma is a lesson for the ages

Jennifer Rubin: Biden outfoxes the GOP in first 60 days

Michele L. Norris: Thanks to covid-19, the age of biometric surveillance is here