Is a vaccination Threshold for International Air Travel Feasible?

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Discussions around a mandatory vaccination requirement for international travel continue to stir up controversy. While it poses a seemingly watertight plan for resumption of pre-pandemic normalcy, it threatens to marginalize  the African continent and its people.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has developed and tested an app with a select group of airlines, that offers tools for one to manage their COVID-19 tests, vaccines information and other relevant requirements for a scheduled flight. This infrastructural setup shall not only synergise systems for better accessibility but shall also feed governments with the confidence required to relieve the industry of a few constrictive measures while still ensuring safe travel. Furthermore, it shall guarantee infrastructural preparedness in case of the emergence of another such pandemic.

However, aside from the typical security and data privacy concerns that are usually attached to such initiatives by skeptics, it heralds the apprehension of an era of vaccine passports across the travel industry. With these systems in place, the launch of a mandatory vaccine passport for travel becomes an eventuality. And with it comes an impediment to many African travelers.

Pakistan most recently made an emphatic suggestion that unvaccinated air travelers be prevented from travel, starting August 1st. World governments are taking steps and slowly gravitating towards that notion as expressed by the apprehensions of British former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, “If another country says you can’t come unless you have the jab, then we want Brits to be able to demonstrate that.” to achieve with COVID-19, what has been done with the Yellow Fever card. (Travellers to and from yellow fever hostspots must be in possession of a yellow card certifying vaccination, in order to meet the threshold for international travel.) Conceptually, it would prevent crossborder transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

While this might be ideal, the stark disparities in vaccine distribution surface to disqualify it.

Although high-income countries only account for 19% of the global adult population, collectively, they have purchased more than half (54%, or 4.6 billion) of global vaccine doses purchased to date. Of the remaining doses, 33% have been purchased by Lower Middle Income Countries (LMICs), who account for 81% of the global adult population; an additional 13% have been purchased by COVAX.” according to the KFF COVID-19 vaccine monitor.

This state of affairs that has been infamously dubbed ‘Vaccine Apartheid’ predisposes African countries, that compose a large fraction of LMICs and low income countries, to a disadvantageous station, with the predominant number of citizens not being able to meet the preffered standards for travel.

The IATA and World Health Organisation (WHO) have and continue to be particularly vocal against this discriminative imposition. More so considering the fact that the world’s 92 poorest nations shall only have arrived at a 60% vaccination rate by 2023, which would bleed airlines of revenue, should the imposition take effect.

Also in consideration is the fact that vaccines are a work in progress. There is uncertainty about the change in vaccine efficacy against emerging variants. Vaccine-resistant mutations such as the Delta variant have proven to counter the effect of vaccines to an extent of causing fatalities. The United Kingdom alone has registered over 100 such deaths amongst fully vaccinated individuals, according to a report by Deutsch Welle (DW).

Uncertain also is the duration of protection that the vaccines offer and thus for how long any such passport would be valid. The vaccines certainly prevent severe illness but questionable still is the capacity to prevent a COVID-19 carrier from proceeding to transmit the virus, according to Professor Christopher Dye in an interview with the BBC. He went on to explain that yellow fever, which has a single vaccine is the only mandated vaccine for travel and is highly effective.

More on this is the global ascent to the use of the vaccine in question. The European Union has notably refused to acknowledge ‘Covisheald’ (the Indian-made Astra Zeneca vaccine) which most African countries received through the COVAX initiative and which further entrenches the marginalization.

Also, vaccination domestically remains optional due to personal beliefs, health complications which amongst others include, severe allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis. In a bid to evade the legal, social and ethical ramifications, governments attempt a marginally successful coercive incentivization through, not only campaigns, but also limited access to certain activities, areas and services. The IATA though, advises against imposition of more stringent standards on tourists or foreigners than domestic citizens. A ripple effect of this incentivization is also showing face in international travel, in form of (amongst other perks) extra flying points for fully vaccinated travelers by airlines like Qantas.

This is proving to be a delicate and volatile balancing game for governments in domestic and foreign policy. The complexity in treading these waters lies not only in arriving at, but also synchronisation of standards. For now, it appears as though testing before and after travel remains the only feasible avenue.

By Nelson Ruto

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