Ira Lacher: If you want to kennel any watchdog proposal in America, no matter how beneficial, just scream “freedom!” -promoted by Laura Belin
“COVID passports” may be well on their way to fruition. The idea of having to produce documentation before you can do what we used to take for granted — like go to a ballgame or board a plane — is gaining traction overseas, where proof of an ultrarecent negative COVID-19 test or vaccination is required to travel freely among European Union countries. Many airlines flying domestically or internationally require similar proof, and you can’t enter the United States from abroad without it.
The next step, proponents argue, is to import the idea. Such proof would be required for interstate travel, and perhaps for more mundane access such as attending a concert or sporting event. Advocates say this would allow more than a small percentage of stadium or arena seats to be filled, permit restaurants to operate at full capacity, and eliminate quarantine requirements for out-of-state visitors.
Though the reason for documentation, the SARS-Cov2 virus, is new, the idea isn’t. For years, some countries have required proof of vaccination against yellow fever; now it’s just another travel document you need to carry. Proponents say the COVID passport will echo the evolution of TSA screening following 9/11: a new annoyance giving way to a necessary drudge.
But if you want to kennel any watchdog proposal in America, no matter how beneficial, just scream “freedom!” Opponents raise issues of privacy and ethics, specifically what information would you have to furnish for such proof, and who or what would steward the data. Other complications also could scuttle this commonsense approach.
For one, sizable numbers of Americans, including a third of Iowans, say they will not be vaccinated, which would bar millions of Americans from doing what other Americans would be allowed to do. Although private businesses already can legally employ a “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy, it’s questionable whether adding “no shot” would violate civil liberties laws. Someone would be sure to test that in court.
But there’s another, more concerning factor at play.
In February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control established a national set of priorities for ending the pandemic: first, limit death and serious disease; second, enable society to function; third, reduce pandemic-caused disparities.
The first two priorities are being addressed. Nursing home deaths of residents and staff, which last summer accounted for a third of all COVID-related fatalities, have been reduced by 67 percent. And infection rates, as well as deaths, are declining significantly from the winter spike, owing to increased mask-wearing, physical distancing, and ever-ramping-up vaccine distribution. As public health officials hold their breath, states are relaxing lockdowns, even the strictest such as New York and California.
But the third priority is failing because the same folks who disproportionately got seriously ill from COVID-19 and died in percentages exceeding their populations — namely, Black, Brown and Indigenous persons — are lagging in vaccination rates too. And it’s for the same reasons: They tend to live in poorer, more densely populated “food desert” neighborhoods, making it difficult to develop healthy eating habits; they work shoulder-to-shoulder in physically demanding, low-wage jobs, often without health insurance; and they can’t take time off from work to get a shot nearby, much less drive a hundred miles to a community where a shot is available.
The Kaiser Family Foundation reported on March 17 that those who have been vaccinated are 9 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Black, 5 percent Asian, 2 percent Indigenous, less than 1 percent Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander … and 67 percent white. Which means whites are being vaccinated at more than a 2-to-1 rate over other demographics combined. (In some states, such as Arizona, the rate is 3-to-1.)
“The [zip] code you live in should not determine your ability to access health care,” Randall L. Rutta, chief executive of the nonprofit National Health Council, wrote in The New York Times. “Far too often, discriminators like race, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, location, transportation, income and insurance status divide our communities into the haves and have-nots. During a pandemic, those gaps can be deadly.”
President Joe Biden has promised to address this disparity. “This is going to allow millions of more Americans to get vaccinated sooner than previously anticipated,” he said in February.
But even a proactive approach to ending the pandemic could be derailed by what has become a standard boogeyman on the right: “affirmative action.”
Remember affirmative action? This determined strategy was intended to make up for America’s overpopulation of white males in choice colleges and jobs, and inequitable compensation. It didn’t take long for aggrieved White people to holler “reverse discrimination!” and flood dockets with lawsuits, some affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Would a younger or white, middle-class person sue if they were sent to the back of the vaccine line so an older or Black or Hispanic or Indigenous person could get the shot first? Bet the over on that.
Americans desperately want to break out of this COVID-induced societal inertia. We can accomplish this in a concerted, focused and commonsense manner: Get vaccines to those who need it, thus achieving herd immunity. Simultaneously, give people the freedom to circulate in society by furnishing them with proof that they needn’t be feared. This is hardly the road less traveled. And it will remain so, as long as we resist the urge to dump rocks all over it.
Editor’s note: Bleeding Heartland covered racial and ethnic disparities in Iowa’s COVID-19 vaccination rates in early February and early March. According to data compiled by Sara Anne Willette, as of March 21 white Iowans have received more than three times as many doses per capita as Black Iowans, and Iowans who are not Latino have received more than three times as many doses as Latinos.
Top image: COVID-19 vaccine being administered in Des Moines on February 27. Photo by Phil Roeder, shared on the Des Moines Public Schools Flickr feed.