Any document displaying Covid-19 status that clears an individual for travel or prevents them from travelling will be inherently inequitable in its application since vaccine and testing access are so unequal. I hope that African, Latin American, Caribbean, and Asian nations without large-scale access to vaccines will resist such moves.
Normal times offer societies a cloak of plausible ignorance of underlying inequities and declining social progress. Crisis rips the veil off and force societies to confront themselves, and the Covid-19 pandemic has been no different.
Whether it was access to tests, masks, or now vaccines, inherent inequalities within and between societies have emerged. In the US and the UK, communities of colour bore a disproportionate brunt of fatalities.
When the vaccines arrived, at least in the US, vaccine access rates did not match infection and fatality rates. The inherent inequalities of the US found eloquent expression in how the country responded to the crisis.
These inequities within countries also played out between countries. The richest countries of the world could pass massive stimulus packages to blunt the economic fallout of the vaccines, and they could make billions of dollars of advance market commitments to multiple drug manufacturers.
Poorer countries, especially those in Africa, had only so much fiscal space to prop up their economies – advance commitments without knowing whether the vaccine would succeed, or fail, were not an easy decision in countries struggling to meet basic needs.
At current access rates, under the best of circumstances, only about 35% of Africa’s population will be vaccinated this year. The prospect of an economic recovery from the Covid-triggered recession is dependent on being able to open up societies and integrate with the rest of the world. This is where Africa’s lack of access to vaccines could effectively cut off the continent from the rest of the world.
Across China, Europe, and in the US, there is a growing push for temporary Covid-19 health credentials to enable the reopening of global travel. The European Union is expected to introduce a proposal for a “Digital Green Pass” that will indicate whether the holder has been vaccinated, has recovered from Covid-19, or has received a negative test.
Western publics, facing movement restriction fatigue and now becoming vaccinated, are clamouring for a return to normal. These sentiments are quite understandable, but for many in sub-Saharan Africa there is a justifiable scepticism. Beyond the moral question of whether it makes sense to impose such a restriction when vaccine access has been so unequal is the practical question of what it means for Africa.
Visa denials are already high
Even in the best of times, the global north has viewed African visitors with, at best, suspicion and, at worst, hostility. Visa denial rates are highest for African applicants and the applicant is expected to clear an inordinately high bar to reverse that result. It is not outside the scope of consular officers to use the imposition of Covid-19 vaccine passports as a convenient excuse to lower an already dismal visa approval rate for Africa.
In March 2017, the NPR website ran a story that demonstrated the anti-African immigration posture of the Trump administration when it reported on a US-Africa summit in California that none of its 60 African guests were able to attend.
There was no clear reason why all the delegates from 12 African countries were denied visas to attend the African Global Economic and Development Summit, especially since none were from Libya, Somalia. or Sudan – the three African countries on President Trump’s Muslim ban executive order. But for any African who has applied for a US visa, the story was not surprising.
The blanket denial for the event almost seemed coordinated, but there is no reason to suspect this. There was no need for a memo instructing consular staff to specifically turn down all African invitees if there was already an implicit understanding that all African visa applicants were suspect.
But this attitude is not exclusively a Trump administration or US issue. Canada’s visa approval rates for African applicants are lower than those for travellers from any other region and it has drawn criticism for its discriminatory posture. The same holds true for the Schengen area, where African nationals receive the most negative responses to their applications.
When the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, suggests that poorer countries should wait for Western developed vaccines (through Covax) and forego Chinese and Russian vaccines, it seems doubly cruel.
At a time when Western countries have hoarded the produce of their own manufacturers, poorer countries are urged to wait for the non-forthcoming vaccines. On the other hand, Western countries might introduce vaccine passports, granting free movement to those privileged enough to already have access.
Making it easier to ban Africans
African scepticism about the underlying motivations for, and implications of, a vaccine passport is based on the reality that the countries least likely to approve visas to Africa are the ones considering the introduction of said passports. Since the number of vaccinations administered across sub-Saharan Africa is so low, it does not require much imagination to project what this means for would-be African travellers.
For consular officers primed to reject visa applications, the introduction of a vaccine passport could make the job significantly easier.
Neither African business people nor African students are on the list of high-risk or priority persons to receive the small supplies currently arriving in African capitals. Even high-priority groups like healthcare workers are still unable to get vaccines. On a continent still unable to acquire vaccines for its most essential workers, most of the rest of the population will not be vaccinated for the next three years.
It is my hope that African policymakers will push back hard against any Covid-19 status credentials that are not equitably applicable. One hopes that leaders across the West and in China will also consider the moral implications of such policy choices and put a brake on them.
Gyude Moore is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. He previously served as Liberia’s minister of public works.