Governments are rightly focussing on vaccination strategies to protect people from COVID-19. In Europe, most countries have signalled that the vaccination will not be compulsory. But politicians and companies in some countries, like the UK, France and Switzerland, have raised the prospect of restricting access to certain places for people who have not been vaccinated. Governments should not start requiring a ‘immunity passports’ for people to go to bars, cinemas or concerts. Otherwise, we could see the creation of two-tier societies: the privileged vaccinated enjoying their freedoms and the unvaccinated shut out of social life. This is because the way the vaccine is distributed is likely to intensify existing inequalities in society, in three ways.
Unequal access to the vaccination
First, regardless of how keen governments are to roll out the vaccine, it’s likely that some groups in society will be slower to receive it. People with lower levels of education and media literacy are likely to be more vulnerable to malicious conspiracy theories and disinformation that may make them sceptical about the vaccine. People living in rural areas and poorer regions with more remote or less well-resourced health services may also have to wait longer than those living in urban or more affluent areas.
Second, national authorities may make the vaccine harder to access (or not facilitate access) for certain groups in society. In an extreme example outside the EU, Israel has been criticised for not giving equal access to the vaccine to Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Although similar policies don’t yet seem to exist in the EU, research shows that LGBTQI persons, Roma and undocumented migrants face discrimination in several EU countries when trying to access health services in general. Either because they live remotely from health services, lack health insurance or documentation to get access to these services, or because of prejudice from medical staff.
Third, corruption and political favouritism will see some in society jumping the queue. For example, in Spain some local authorities are reported to have broken the order of vaccine roll-out by offering it to family members of public servants and priests. Similarly, in Poland, it’s reported that some politicians and celebrities were vaccinated during a phase when only medical staff were eligible.
The immunity passport could become a ‘passport for privilege’, accentuating the divide between those who already have a comfortable position in society and those on the margins. Although the EU’s powers in the area of health policy are limited, there are at least three things the EU could do to mitigate the risk of exacerbating inequality.
What the EU could do
First, the Commission can help promote equitable access to the vaccine by: securing enough doses to make it available to everyone in the EU; issuing guidance to governments on how make the vaccine as accessible as possible; and invest in awareness-raising and education campaigns to inform and encourage the public to get vaccinated.
Second, the Commission could take legal action against countries applying discriminatory roll-outs. EU law requires non-discrimination in access to and supply of goods and services, including health services, on several grounds including race and ethnic origin. The Commission could bring a government to court if it emerges that authorities are discriminating against certain groups in the way they distribute the vaccine. The Commission can also require governments to show that projects to support national health services under EU cohesion funds or corona recovery funds don’t end up discriminating against certain groups. For example, if a government wanted to use these funds to roll-out the vaccine in areas where the ethnic majority population lives to the exclusion of areas that are predominantly populated by an ethnic minority.
Third, the Commission could also take legal action if governments were to require vaccination as a condition of travel between member countries. Although governments are allowed to limit free movement on public health grounds, it’s arguable that a recent negative test result is a less intrusive way of fulfilling the same goal.
There’s plenty of evidence that the pandemic has already hurt some ethnic and less affluent groups in society disproportionately compared to the national average. The EU Commission can help make sure that the road to recovery is more equitable.