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Hurdles for air travellers as nations okay vaccine passport

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Subtle discrimination awaits global travel, tourism in a ‘two-tier’ world
• Experts divided over policy, rally for improved vaccination locally
• FAAN, Air Peace vaccinate staffers, frontline workers

Despite vaccine hesitancy over issues of efficacy and side effects, as well as procurement challenges, more countries, airlines and destinations have endorsed the COVID-19 vaccine passport regime, especially as the promise of summer travel is becoming more real after the lull in last year’s summer travels due to pandemic lockdown and restrictions.
 

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The endorsement, currently pushed as a global agenda, is touted to impact air travel as it mounts fresh hurdles for the travelling public.

Globally, more than three million people have now died from the coronavirus. The number of lives lost, as compiled by Johns Hopkins University, is about equal to the population of Kyiv (Ukraine), Caracas (Venezuela) or Lisbon (Portugal).

The vaccination campaigns are speeding up but rising cases have forced new lockdowns and restrictions around the world. India yesterday recorded a new high of more than 261,000 daily coronavirus cases. Statistics by the Health Ministry revealed that 261,500 cases were registered in the past 24 hours, which pushed the total to 14.7 million. There were 1,500 deaths, taking the number of fatalities to 177,150.

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The vaccine passport – in the form of certificates or digital cards testifying to the low-risk status of their holders – promises to reopen the world and perhaps return lives to normal. But its subtle implication of compulsory vaccination for all air travellers raises fundamental questions of a more divided and discriminatory world.

Some countries, most of them with economies dependent on tourism, are pushing ahead either with real vaccine passport plans or allowing vaccinated visitors to skip quarantine requirements for entry. The private sector, most notably cruise lines and airlines, is also eagerly climbing aboard. 

Proving you are vaccinated to travel abroad isn’t a new concept though. Some countries have required Yellow Fever vaccines for years, but doing so for COVID-19 would be on a far grander scale than ever before and would present immense logistical challenges.

Passport sceptics also predict they could result in discrimination and fraud, encourage risky behaviour in the face of new coronavirus variants.

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Specifically, vaccine passport policy draws the line between those that have taken the jab and those that have not; between vaccinated-rich countries and poor ones like Nigeria that have barely kick-started vaccination, therefore, leading to disenfranchising the unvaccinated and poor countries from international travel and tourism.

More than 884 million vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, equal to 11 doses for every 100 people, across 155 countries, according to data collected by Bloomberg. The latest rate was roughly 17 million doses a day.
 
The vaccine uptake in many parts of the world is still very low, especially in the African continent. There is already a stark gap between vaccination programmes in different countries, with many yet to report a single dose with less than 2% of the vaccine doses administered in Africa, where most countries received vaccines only five weeks ago and in small quantities.

Nigeria for instance has vaccinated just over a million of its 200 million-plus population, while there is no date yet on when it will receive more batches of the vaccine for the second jab and the rest of the population not yet vaccinated.
 

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In reaction, aviation stakeholders are divided on the prospect of the “golden-green card” era. A section, not favourably disposed to the call, said a hurried or “rash” vaccine passport policy amid vaccine controversies and unequal access among countries would cut off potential customers and further hurt aviation businesses.
  
Others, more persuaded, argued that a world completely shocked and shattered by a coronavirus pandemic, killing over three million people and shutting economies in a yearlong battering, should warm up to any measure that promises salvation.
 
Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has been devastating for the travel and tourism sector, among others globally. As the virus burns fiercely, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) estimated that the sector lost $4.5 trillion in revenue in 2020.
 
Apparently eager for a safe restart to salvage businesses, a good number of tourism-dependent economies and major airlines are pressing for advanced options availed by the COVID-19 vaccines and herd immunity. But unaccounted for are the red flags and safety concerns trailing vaccine brands like AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson (J&J), with an attendant rise in vaccine hesitancy and scepticism.
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Many countries in the European Union (EU) are already having a go at the vaccine passport regime. Last month, the EU gave the go-ahead to its own vaccine passport, a “Digital Green Certificate,” though the Union was undecided on when the passport will become operational.
 
Greece is at the forefront of a bid to revive travel with the help of a vaccine passport. It said it would welcome back visitors starting on May 14, as long as they’ve had a vaccination, recovered from the novel coronavirus, or tested negative before flying out.
 
Denmark has begun using its digital “Coronapas” vaccine passport domestically from Easter, but it could also be used later as a tool for international travel.
 
Israel has vaccinated more than half of its population is issuing a “Green Pass” to those that have been fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19. They have to show the pass to access facilities such as hotels, gyms or theatres. Neither the pass nor vaccination is open to foreigners.
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In the United States, President Joe Biden is facing pressure from travel interests, including Airlines for America, the industry lobby, to introduce federal standards for vaccine passports. 
 
The United Kingdom (UK) aims to permit international leisure trips starting from May 17 but also considering the controversial vaccine passport policy not just for travels, but nationally. More than 5.4 million people in the UK have been fully vaccinated, with a total of more than 31.6 million first doses given.
  
The UK government said certificates showing vaccination, test or immunity status could “provide reassurance”. But many parliamentarians have criticised the plan, describing it as a plan to create a “two-tier” Britain, discriminatory, and have more people in the disadvantaged group.
 
Lead Faculty at Lagos Aviation Academy, Rilwan Saaka, yesterday told The Guardian that the vaccine passport era was inevitable at this time, and the world would soon come to its endorsement.
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Saaka explained that to re-open borders without quarantine and restart the aviation industry, governments need to be confident that they are effectively mitigating the risk of importing COVID-19.
 
“Countries can go ahead with the adoption of a vaccine passport as it enables travellers’ health status and details to be easily accessible online within a few minutes, which makes travel easier and puts an end to the compulsory quarantine that visiting travellers must observe.
 
“It is true that the vaccine is not 100 per cent safe yet, but a higher percentage of people have taken the vaccine in more developed nations. Those countries need to re-open, especially their businesses and other day-to-day activities. So, a better way to ensure safety is to introduce the Travel passport as also suggested by the International Air Transport Association (IATA),” Saaka said.
 
However, his worry was the standardisation of the policy across countries, without which international air connectivity is impossible.
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“A lot of consideration should be given to the countries with less or without vaccination as it is yet to go round. It’s the responsibility of the government of countries with less or without vaccination to ensure that their citizens have access to vaccination and are vaccinated,” Saaka said.
 
At the weekend, the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) began vaccination of airlines and airport workers.
 
Spokesperson of Air Peace airline, Stanley Olisa, said their pilots, cabin crew and other frontline personnel had started receiving the COVID-19 vaccine to help curtail the spread of the virus and give passengers more confidence to fly with the airline.
 
Estimates revealed that just two per cent of global vaccines have gone to about 36 African countries. Besides the short supply, vaccine hesitancy is still very high for reasons not unconnected with general doubts on coronavirus, distrust on vaccine efficacy and religious claims linking the campaign to the “mark of the beast” as forewarned by the Bible.   
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Unbothered by those to be left behind in the new travel regime, Emirates Airlines last week flew its first flight carrying all-vaccinated crew and passengers. The United Arab Emirates’ national carrier ferried 400 passengers on EK2021 flight around the UAE in a pilot phase that also had all vaccinated ground support staff. The country has used over nine million vaccines.  
 
IATA, which represents 290 global airlines, is on its part developing an app called “Travel Pass” in which users will upload documentation to prove vaccination status, and also access health entry requirements before travels.
 
Having lost $95 billion in 2021 already, following a record revenue plunge in 2020, global airlines are rallying behind the IATA Travel Pass. About 23 airlines, among them Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Etihad, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, already test running the vaccine passport app.
 
But Behavioural scientist, Prof. Stephen Reicher, criticised the “mixed message” embedded in the vaccine passport advocacy, saying it would further mount vaccine resistance than drive people to it.
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“To talk about vaccine passports, even to talk about the possibility that participating in everyday social life, you will have to get vaccinated is counterproductive at this stage where we would need to convert and convince those who have doubts,” Reicher said.
 
Apparently, in agreement, an aviation consultant and Chief Executive Officer of Belujane Konzult, Chris Aligbe, described the vaccine passport policy as not properly thought out.
 
Aligbe said the airline's industry cannot survive the present difficulty insisting on vaccine-compliant passengers only.
 
“No matter what IATA is doing, the policy will still hurt the airlines because many countries will still be backward in the vaccination programme. Many that want to travel will want to get vaccinated, but in a country where you don’t have enough vaccines like Nigeria, how many will have a vaccine passport?
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“For me, IATA should be very careful in accepting vaccine passports as the standard, except they come to a point of setting a timeline of two years for all travellers to get a vaccine passport. More so, there is no guarantee yet on vaccine efficacy, or which of the brands is actually better. This is policy and I think IATA and others should sit down and think it through carefully,” Aligbe said.
 
Not giving anything to chances, he added that the country should also begin to move fast in availing vaccines for the citizens.
 
“The truth is that people are yet to key into vaccination. Apart from politicians, those rushing to get the jab are mostly intending travellers. People in the villages cannot be bothered. So, vaccination remains an urban and elitists’ thing. But we should not be laid-back. The government should as much as possible get more vaccines into this country for people willing to get it.”
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