COVID certificates do not pose dilemmas: they pose challenges (and discussion will only work well if we understand it)

By Iñigo de Miguel Beriain

The progressive imposition of the so-called COVID certificates over the course of 2021 has brought an enormous controversy. In some countries, such as France, there have even been massive public protests against them. Analyses of public attitudes towards certification show a high degree of social polarization. A significant minority of the population is strongly opposed to certificates of immunity for any purpose, on the basis of the defense of individual autonomy. However, there is also a minority that supports mandatory vaccination, based on public health reasons. Obviously, this situation is not at all desirable. The fight against the pandemic will be much more efficient if we avoid unnecessary social conflicts. It is, therefore, imperative to introduce a certain degree of calm into this debate.

To this end, it is necessary to point out that many of our disagreements arise from a poor understanding of the ethical, social or legal issues raised by COVID certificates. Too often, this issue is presented to us as if it were a dilemma. In terms of logic, a dilemma is usually defined as “an argument forcing an opponent to choose either of two unfavorable alternatives”. This is precisely what COVID certificates are not. The reason is quite simple: certificates are not rigid tools, which only admit one single modality, or that can only be obtained or used in one single way. If we take this into account, we immediately realize that any position that is radically against, or in favor, of their use is hardly reasonable. For example, it is difficult to understand how someone could object to the fact that only people who present evidence of their inability to transmit the virus can enter an immunosuppressed facility. On the other side of the scale, it is hard to accept that a bartender shall require a COVID certificate before serving a customer on the terrace of a bar where distance rules are strictly enforced.

Indeed, certificates do not create a scenario with absolutely right or wrong, good or bad, with no grades between them. On the contrary, this is a situation in which gradations are essential. These can concern one or more of the many sides of the certificates. To begin with, one has to consider that certificates may be required for many different purposes. They may serve to improve the safety of particular areas, to reduce virus spread, or to encourage vaccination in countries where there is considerable opposition to it. And within these different applications, new considerations can be made. For example, the authority that decides to impose the certificates to protect some spaces has to delimit which areas will need such protection. If, on the other hand, the aim of the certificates is to reduce the transmission of the virus, it is more sensible to require them in areas that might cause events of supercontagion, such as weddings, religious services, or indoor meals at restaurants. Finally, if the aim is to stimulate vaccination without imposing a model of mandatory vaccination, it will be necessary to find an appropriate balance that allows certificates to be conceived exclusively as nuances to vaccinations.

This last point is particularly relevant if we consider that, from another perspective, it is possible to draw clear differences on the issue of certificates depending on the type of rights and freedoms that will be affected. It is not the same to threaten a fundamental right, such as freedom of movement, as it is to limit a freedom, such as the freedom to frequent the interior of a restaurant. Hence its imposition in bars or subways has different connotations. One can live perfectly well if one only has to take a test or get vaccinated to go to bars, but not if one’s access to a basic necessity, such as urban public transport, is limited.

In turn, how certificates are acquired also admits many modalities. In principle, it is acceptable that those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19, have received a negative test result, or have recovered from the disease, can obtain it. However, in certain settings (an immunocompromised facility) it probably makes more sense to require a highly sensitive test (such as a PCR) that is also very recent. A different debate, in turn, will focus on the question of payment. A system in which citizens have access to affordable tests is not the same as one in which this is not the case. Nor is it the same thing if this happens before or after all of them have the chance to get vaccinated.

It is, in short, absurd to discuss the COVID certificate as a question that only admits an affirmative or negative answer. This only facilitates a social polarization that is as harmful as it is meaningless. On the contrary, our task should be to focus on the nuances, exploring the different possibilities of a tool that can be very useful for achieving certain goals that would be difficult reach without it.

By Iñigo de Miguel Beriain

Affiliations: University of the Basque Country. Spain. Panelfit project (panelfit.eu)

Competing interests: None.

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