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Writer Discusses 'The Futility Of Vaccine Passports'


We've talked about whether so-called vaccine passports are legal and whether they might be necessary for travel. Now we want to ask whether bringing them into widespread use is the right thing to do. Yasmeen Serhan is worried about this. She wrote a piece for The Atlantic titled "The Futility Of Vaccine Passports." In it, she argues that vaccine passports could divide society into two groups, the jabbed and the jab-less. And Yasmeen Serhan is with us now from London.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

YASMEEN SERHAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let's just begin with the premise of your piece. Why do you think asking people to provide proof of vaccination would create social divisions, especially because it does seem as though eventually everybody is going to be eligible for a shot?

SERHAN: Yeah, totally. I mean, and that's certainly more true in the U.S., I think, than it is even here in the U.K., where vaccination is going really well, and certainly other parts of the world. But, yeah, I mean, you know, I think for much of this crisis, so much of the narrative - certainly this is the case in the U.K., but I think this could be applied to other countries, too - has been about the togetherness. Like, you know, we need to get through this crisis together.

You know, I recall when this crisis first started, Boris Johnson said that all Britons were directly enlisted in this fight. And, you know, it's kind of been this way throughout. And now we're being faced with the prospect of introducing a system that would kind of be, you know, just a very clear division between those who have been vaccinated and those who aren't.

But it also poses a problem because some people and certainly some communities, particularly here in Britain, minority ethnic communities, still have some hesitations about the jab and, you know, still need some reassurance from the government. And implementing a system like this is something that public health experts fear could, you know, drive up that hesitation at a time where you really want to be shoring up confidence in the jab.

MARTIN: So even if there is a social cost, are there good public policy reasons to institute a system like this? For example, I mean, I don't know what the system is in Britain, but in the United States, I mean, most states have some sort of vaccination protocol for children to attend public school.

And there are opt-outs. But we've seen that in circumstances where people are opting out, there are real costs to that. I mean, diseases that have all been eradicated are resurfacing because people are refusing to get their kids vaccinated. And that has become a real problem. So even if people do have hesitation, aren't there good faith reasons to try to push people to get vaccinated by perhaps denying them access to places they might want to go, like pubs, if they don't?

SERHAN: It's a good question. I think absolutely. There are definitely reasons for all of us that we would want people to get vaccinated and for everyone to be healthy 100%. But I think making it seem like it's de facto compulsory or that, you know, you're going to be shut out of public life if you don't take the vaccine, that that could rub some people the wrong way and could indeed provide fodder to anti-vaxxers who want to, you know, minimize trust in the vaccine, who want to undermine it by saying, look, the government is trying to tell you what to do.

MARTIN: So what's your better idea?

SERHAN: I think, you know, obviously, trying to ramp up the rollout and make sure everyone gets access to the vaccine - you know, I think it's much easier to argue that it's an incentive, even if you want to do something like this, once everyone has access to the vaccine. But I think the best way, like - you know, you kind of have - even if you did implement something like this, like, I think it's not a proper replacement for doing the kind of community engagement to really encourage people - like, to really answer their questions and explain why the vaccine is safe.

You know, I think one thing that needs to be understood about vaccine hesitancy is that, you know, it's very different from just anti-vax sentiment. Like, hesitancy is by definition an undecided state. And I think, you know, those people can very easily be brought onside if you answer their questions, if you kind of encourage them and assuage any concerns they have - you know, kind of debunk misinformation about the vaccines. I think all of that work needs to be done first before you introduce something like this.

MARTIN: But what do you say to people who say, look, I haven't seen my grandkids in a year? I'm doing all the right things, and my ability to move about society is already compromised by people who aren't doing the right things, who aren't wearing masks, who aren't taking care of themselves. What do you say to them?

SERHAN: It's - like, you know, I mean, I think it's a fair criticism. And obviously, we're all - you know, we're all struggling with this. You know, my family lives in California. I haven't seen them in well over a year. I'm buzzing to see them again. But I think we need to - you know, it's in everyone's incentive to obviously make sure that everyone gets vaccinated and that we can reopen our societies.

But I think, you know, if public health experts are saying this sort of policy could alienate communities and prevent them from getting vaccinated, I think in the long term, that's a big issue. And we don't want this to be, you know, a virus that only affects minorities and the poor. I mean, you know, I don't think that's a solution either.

I think - you know, I'm willing to wait it out a bit longer if we can all get vaccinated and all be able to start resuming, you know, the things we love about life the most together, whether that's going to the pub with your friends, hugging your grandmother - all those things.

MARTIN: That was Yasmeen Serhan, a London-based staff writer for The Atlantic.

Yasmeen, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

SERHAN: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRIS HELLER'S "WHITE LIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.