Clarence Page

I got it! After working my way through a labyrinth of websites and telephone numbers and waiting lists, I finally received my first of two scheduled coronavirus vaccination shots.

Halfway there, I told myself. 

After a year of COVID-19 lockdowns, the slight soreness in my upper left arm is thoroughly mitigated by my overall sense of relief.

I also received something unexpected after my “jab,” as the British refer to such shots: A card slightly larger than a business card that documents what shot I received and what time I was scheduled to return three weeks later for the necessary second dose.

And, as I sat through the mandatory 15 minutes to see whether any side effects turned me into a zombie, it occurred to me that I had joined a new class, the COVID-19-vaccinated, which marks the beginning of another hot-button political issue: COVID-19 passports.

No, I’m not talking about those yellow passport-sized travel certificates that the federal government issues to show that you’ve been vaccinated against yellow fever and similar hazards in some countries overseas.

I’m talking about government-issued cards, smartphone apps and other possible instruments of health verification that are being considered to help keep the coronavirus out of mass gatherings in this country.

We’re all eager to open up public life and the economy again. But if you think required mask-wearing, Zoom churchgoing, socially distanced beach parties and other mass cocooning are volatile issues, the domestic vaccine passports idea, whether by cards or smartphone apps, is downright nuclear.

Social media, for example, lit up like a fireworks factory fire after reports in November that Ticketmaster might require concertgoers to provide proof of vaccination or negative virus tests to attend events. (“Yikes,” responded one tweet, “I can’t wait for y’all to go out of business.”)

In a statement on their website, Ticketmaster strongly denied any such plans and, besides, any health or safety decisions would be up to event planners, not the ticket sellers.

I understand the resistance some people have to the idea of COVID-19 passports. When I heard about the ideas of vaccine passports, I was reminded of apartheid South Africa, where I reported on some of the uprisings against the white-minority government in the 1970s and again in the post-apartheid 2000s. All urban South Africans, in particular, were required to carry a domestic passport-style “pass.” But Black South Africans were far more likely to be stopped and arrested if they failed to produce one.

Indeed, there is a slippery slope to being forced to carry an ID. But, just as most of us see the need for driver’s licenses, we should be smart enough to put proper limits on how much personal information we are required to share.

After all, this debate appears to be only beginning and on multiple fronts. 

Overseas, such passport-like COVID-19 documents have been rolled out in Israel, which also has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates. Several European

countries are considering similar plans, and President Joe Biden is reported to have asked federal agencies to explore the possibilities, although he’s reportedly far from committing to the idea.

Federal authorities already are concerned that some states might be reopening too fast. Yet, as Biden cautioned Thursday after signing a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, we’re not out of the woods – or the emergency room – yet.

Considering our nationwide eagerness to get back to what we used to call normal, the idea of domestic passports has obvious appeal, despite the constant – and mostly unfounded – complaints of vaccine skeptics, if it means we can get out of our houses safely and sooner.

Among other benefits, it would mean a giant step toward narrowing the class divide that has emerged between those of us who can afford to work from home and those who cannot.

It’s hardly a new divide by any means. But life under quarantine has made it all the more obvious and frustrating.

Fears of privacy invasions are not surprising. But this also could be a good time for innovations to encourage us to leave our cocoons.

For example, if private companies, such as restaurants, sports teams and other entertainment are allowed to provide incentives such as discount coupons to their customers who voluntarily vaccinate, instead of having it forced on them, the idea might prove to be a lot more attractive.

Now that I have my vaccination, the idea of carrying proof of it doesn’t sound so scary.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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