Sorry Anti-Vaxxers, Vaccine Passports Have Existed For More Than 120 Years

From forged smallpox certificates in the 1800s to immunisation records for school enrolment, why the sudden fuss over "vaccine passports"?

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Over the weekend, Joe Rogan made headlines for yet another terrible COVID take. This time, he claimed that “vaccine passports” are taking the US “one step closer to dictatorship”.

While talking to his 200 million listeners on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Rogan said only “dumb” people would accept the concept of vaccination passports because politicians “are not going to give that power up”.

“When you give people freedom, you let them do whatever the fuck they want to do, they actually find ways to succeed and grow and thrive,” Rogan started his misguided rant.

“But as soon as you put the boots to them, as soon as you tell them, ‘You have to do this, or you can’t do that. You have to listen to me’ — now you have a mini dictator,” he continued.

“You have one step away from a king. You’re moving one step closer to dictatorship. That’s what the fuck happening.”

“That’s what’s gonna happen with a vaccine passport. That’s what gonna happen if they close borders,” Rogan added. “You can’t enter New York City unless you have your papers. You can’t go here unless you have that. You can’t get on a plane unless you do what I say.”

For confirmation that Rogan has the entirely wrong take here, Donald Trump Jr. even tweeted out a clip from the podcast episode along with the caption: “Joe Rogan gets it”.

Now, we already know that Joe Rogan most definitely does not “get it”. He admitted it in April when he called himself a “fucking moron” for telling young, healthy people they “don’t need to worry about” getting the vaccine.

But even though Rogan told his fans he’s “not a doctor” and “not a respected source of information” on the topic of COVID and vaccines just days after his original vaccine comments, the podcast host has continued to spit out terrible, misinformed takes to his impressionable following.

So, why do people keep listening to what Joe Rogan has to say about things like vaccine passports? Well, that comes to people — anti-vaxxers especially — not having a full understanding of what a vaccine passport actually is.

Sorry Anti-Vaxxers, But Vaccine Passports Have Always Been A Thing

Vaccine passports aren’t a new thing — neither is the concept of needing up-to-date immunisations in order to travel into different countries, get specific jobs, or enter certain establishments.

By definition, a vaccine passport is quite literally just an immunisation record — a document that notes whether someone has been protected against a certain disease. In Australia, you can check your immunisation history through the Australian Immunisation Register (AIR) whenever it is needed, which will be at least once in your life.

For example, in Australia, to enrol a child in public primary school, a parent must provide this up-to-date Immunisation History Statement. There is even a “no jab, no pay” policy that withholds certain benefit payments from parents who refuse to vaccinate their young children but want to put them in pre-school or childcare.

Similarly, for anyone who wants to work in the healthcare industry or around children and animals, there are a number of necessary vaccines that need to be taken due to the proximity to vulnerable and sick people.

When it comes to travelling overseas, certain countries have always required travellers to have up-to-date vaccinations in order to cross international borders.

For example, to enter countries like Morocco, Costa Rica, and Thailand, passengers who have recently travelled from a number of African and South American yellow fever-risk countries — like Angola, Cameroon, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, or Argentina — must provide a vaccination certificate upon entry.

The Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP), more commonly known as a yellow card, was introduced in 1959 and is backed by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The yellow card often lists someone’s vaccinations against diseases like yellow fever, cholera, and rubella. But while yellow fever is currently the only disease that a country can demand proof for as an entry requirement — under the International Health Regulations (IHR) Act — WHO can “strongly recommend” countries to ask for other essential vaccines depending on outbreaks in the area.

For example, WHO currently recommends the polio vaccine for any adults who want to enter Pakistan and Afghanistan but haven’t been vaccinated against polio since they were a child because of how prevalent the disease is there.

The 120-Year History Of The Vaccine Passport

But even with the yellow card being introduced in the ’50s, the concept of people needing “immunisation proof” actually dates back to 1796 when Edward Jenner created the first-ever vaccine to help fight against smallpox.

When the smallpox epidemic reached the United States in 1899, the hardest hit states made vaccination compulsory with “official certificates of vaccination” being required for people to “go to work, attend public school, ride trains or even go to the theatre”, according to 

Just like anti-vaxxers today, there were people opposed to the smallpox vaccine in the 1800s, too. But because the vaccine was compulsory, anti-vaxxers would forge their vaccination certificates, which meant that officials had to ask to see vaccination scars in place of a vaccine card.

“Because certificates could be so easily forged, they’d insist on seeing the vaccine scar,” said Michael Willrich, a history professor at Brandeis University and author of Pox: An American History. “Vaccine scars readily served as a physical form of certification.”

Similarly, when the plague rolled around in the 19th century, proof of vaccination became essential for Hindu and Muslim pilgrimage sites, which were thought to potentially cause huge outbreaks due to population density.

According to Sanjoy Bhattacharya, a professor of history at the University of York, pilgrims entering the town of Pandharpur in colonial Bombay, for example, had to prove they were vaccinated before being granted entry.

Bhattacharya explained to NPR that the need for vaccine passports increased when air travel was introduced because of how much faster local smallpox outbreaks could occur. So, before people could board plans they had to undergo vaccine certificate checks “with forcible isolation at airports of any passengers considered to have dubious documentation”.

The Potential Problems With A COVID-19 Vaccine Passport

The rumoured plans for a COVID-19 vaccine passport will allow those vaccinated against coronavirus to travel freely between countries. But an issue that is tied to this concept is the accessibility of the coronavirus vaccine itself, which puts certain countries at a disadvantage if a COVID-19 vaccination is required for entry.

Take Burundi and Eritrea, for example, which haven’t administered a single COVID vaccine yet as the government haven’t accepted the doses. Or countries like Haiti, Chad, and Turkmenistan where only around 0.1 to 0.7 in every 100 people are vaccinated against coronavirus.

Even countries like Australia, where the vaccine rollout has been slow and mostly inaccessible for people under 40 up until just a few months ago, are falling behind in vaccination rates.

This means that even if citizens of these nations wanted to be vaccinated, supply issues and government vaccine hesitancy could unfairly prevent someone’s ability to travel internationally. A research paper in the Lancet also found that this restricted movement could widen the gap between richer and poorer nations, which could potentially escalate diplomatic conflicts.

Speaking to NPR in April, WHO shared that they thought that “requirements of proof of COVID-19 vaccination” shouldn’t be introduced just yet, citing the “efficacy of vaccines in preventing transmissions [being] not yet clear” and the limited global vaccine supply. However, this is not WHO’s final stance on vaccine passports as their “recommendations will evolve as supply expands and as evidence about existing and new COVID-19 vaccines is compiled”.

Beyond travel, as each country battles with the rise of the Delta variant domestically, vaccine passports have been utilised in different ways, which has angered those who don’t want to be vaccinated at all.

In Israel, a temporary “green pass” was introduced that used a QR code to prove vaccination status and allow entry to gyms, restaurants, hotels, and events. If not vaccinated, a temporary 72-hour QR code could be generated after a negative test result was produced.

Similarly, France introduced a “health pass” that was required to enter any establishment that catered to more than 50 people, and Greece made vaccination certificates mandatory for anyone who wanted to visit indoor restaurants and bars.

And in Australia, while a digital certificate that proves you’re vaccinated against COVID-19 is available, it currently holds no power despite anti-vaxxers constantly complaining about it.

So, there you have it. Vaccine passports are not a new invention by any means, but there are some questions around what implementing a blanket measure could mean for the poorer countries of the world, and anti-vaxxers, going forward.

Michelle Rennex is senior writer at Junkee. She tweets at @michellerennex.

Image Credit: Marco Verch / Flickr