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Digital dignity – A digital health pass – Protection vs. Discrimination


Published on October 12 , 2023

Digital Dignity – A Digital Health Pass – Protection vs. Discrimination


Almost two years into a pandemic that claimed the lives of millions, closed borders, applied lockdowns and forced us into a virtual existence.

The coronavirus pandemic has reached every country in the world leaving economies and businesses counting the costs.

At the end of 2020, we saw several vaccines being proposed to help curb the spread of the virus and thus ensure that humanity returns to a somewhat “normal” existence.

There are many types of vaccines available aiming to provide acquired immunity against COVID-19, but the question is how the shot will be communicated to the public? Will it be the solution that will give us our lifestyle back?

This is where the idea of a “Digital Health Pass” was recommended as a way States can control their citizens and foreign nationals in their whereabouts, to the point of limiting entry to those who have been vaccinated, including regulating up to even the type of vaccine. 

While some States prohibited proof-of-vaccination requirements e others have facilitated the creation of digital vaccination status applications. The matter is not without its criticism, as those proponents of privacy, particularly in health matters have strongly voiced their objection to the use of such a system in identifying and granting entry to travelers across the world.

Therefore, the question arises: Is this digital health pass a protection for its holder or a discriminatory tool that will place a new control mechanism in the hand of the government over citizens?

  • Definition of a digital health pass

A digital health pass or a vaccine passport is a tool that certifies COVID-19 vaccine intake and thus reassures those around as to her safety from the virus.

  • Why a digital health pass is needed?

A digital health pass or a vaccine passport is a tool that certifies COVID-19 vaccine intake and thus reassures those around as to her safety from the virus.

Travelers are facing difficulties when planning their trips, while the authorities struggle to implement the right restrictions to protect their citizens and trying to manage with the outdated guidelines, which is a complicated task.

A vaccine passport would simplify matters by offering global, standardized solutions.

The use of vaccine passports is based on the general presumption that a vaccinated person would be less likely to transmit the virus to others, and less likely to experience a severe outcome if they were to be infected.

  •  The controversy of the digital health pass

The digital health pass can be seen as a normalcy tool, voiced as the only way to return to “normal”, while others strongly oppose it, stating scientific, legal and ethical challenges against its use.

Scientifically, the digital health pass had an impressive efficacy in reducing the risk of hospitalization and death but there is no concrete evidence that it can lower transmission.

The table below shows the vaccine roll out data for the total numbers of cases for the month of January 2022 in KSA, Switzerland, UAE, Canada and the US:

LocationPercentage fully vaccinatedTotal dosesTotal number of coronavirus cases in 31 January

Digital health passes are questionable, given the scientific and technical challenges they pose, such as the variable effectiveness by vaccine type, ability in preventing transmission, duration of immunity, and emergence of variant strains, but the biggest challenge, though, is ethical and how DHPs intersect with vaccine inequities.

Legally and ethically, digital health passes open the possibility of being discriminated against and marginalized, particularly as there is an unequal access to vaccinations, which will be further aggravated by the idea of having a vaccine certificate.

A digital health pass is being regarded by some critics as a violation of several human rights guaranteed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly:

(Article 13): Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

(Article 27): Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(Article 21): Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

However, as COVID vaccines become mandatory for jobs and international travel, the threat of a black market has sprung up to provide forged digital health passes. This is ominous because it has the potential to open a door to an economic underworld, thus escalating the pandemic.

Of course, the alleged breach of international convention rights is a matter of interpretation and depends largely on whether the conduct of States promotes or retards the well-being of citizens.

Cyber-attacks, data leaks and counterfeit

Identity theft is an added element to consider in relation to these new passes. The need for strong defenses against cyber-attacks and data leaks in developing countries is compelling given the lack of effective data protection regulations and institutions.

The black market for fake COVID-19 vaccination cards is booming.

In the U.S, 45 state attorneys general recently joined together to call on Twitter, Shopify and eBay to stop the sale of false and stolen vaccine cards, according to the New York Times. That pressure led these larger platforms to start blacklisting certain keywords, according to Saoud Khalifah, the founder and CEO of Fakespot, a company that uses artificial intelligence to detect fraudulent product reviews and third-party sellers online.
Notwithstanding, how easy the cards are to forge; digital privacy advocates say that a paper-based system is still preferable to a central online database as the concept of vaccine proof is not new. However, as digital is a contemporary innovation, opportunities for fraud abound.

  • International response to the digital health pass:

The global effort to develop and distribute an effective vaccine are still ongoing two years into the pandemic.

More than 20 vaccines have been approved for general or emergency use in, among others, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As of late 2021, close to nine billion billion doses had been administered worldwide. Several countries—including Portugal, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates—have made significant progress in immunizing their citizens, while others have vaccinated small fractions of their populations.

CountriesYear 2021Year 2022

Pandemic to endemic

As we are heading into the third year of struggling to contain and eliminate this pandemic, experts seem to agree that the virus will continue to dominate for a long time unless we reach herd immunity.

The availability of the COVID-19 vaccine was a key step toward ending the pandemic or transitioning into an endemic despite but the mutating variants effectively delays control of the virus.

There are many who believe Omicron is the final wave of the pandemic. That belief t is based on the view that there will be so much immunity in many populations due to the overwhelmingly easy spread of the Omicron variant and that transmission rates will drop. SARS-2 will transition into something more akin to the influenza-like illnesses but are far less disruptive than the pandemic… If transmission slows, it is hoped that the virus’ mutations could be better controlled.

Therefore, the Europeans are considering it an endemic light in the pandemic tunnel.

In Portugal, which has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa declared in a New Year’s speech that the country had “moved into an endemic phase.” But the debate over specific measures petered out as the spread soon accelerated to record levels — almost 44,000 new cases in 24 hours was reported on Tuesday 21 January 2022.

In the United Kingdom, mask-wearing in public places and COVID-19 passports will be dropped on 26 January. 26. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Wednesday 21 January 2022 saying that the latest wave had “peaked nationally.”

Spain led the call for Covid-19 to be treated as an endemic disease like the flu, becoming the first major European nation to explicitly suggest that people should live with it.

“Spain wants to lead this debate because it is timely and necessary to do so,” Health Minister Carolina Darias has said, adding that Spain asked the European Centre for Disease Prevention (ECDC) to “study new strategies” to deal with Covid.


Governments have power to authenticate and monitor vaccination status while requiring proof of vaccination for access to certain privileges. International law poses few restrictions on DHPs. The International Health Regulations, signed by 196 countries, grant wide discretion to exercise evidence-based public health powers.

However, governments and private entities must take into consideration these considerations:

·         Consider Data Protection as high priority by only collecting the necessary data with proper security measures to ensure privacy as a fundamental human right.

·         The COVID-19 vaccine must remain free of charge, and there must be no fee for obtaining the vaccine certificate at all as the vaccination sites are approved by the Ministry of Public Health.

·         Compulsory vaccination has become controversial and some commentators argue that compulsory vaccination is an interference with the human right of bodily integrity. This view is based on the interpretation of the right to private life in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as in the European Convention on Human Rights. Countries or businesses requiring a vaccine certificate will widen social divisions deepening the gap between those who have privilege lifestyles and those who have been the worst hit by the pandemic.

·         Governments and courts must seek to criminalize use or sale of fake vaccine cards as some are trying to skirt these new requirements by forging or using fake or stolen vaccination cards. Any falsification and forgery of vaccination cards should be unlawful.