'Vaccine passports' are stoking a ridiculous right-wing culture war panic

  • COVID gave us a bunch of culture war panics. The latest is over “vaccine passports.”
  • Libertarians and conservatives see them as a step toward totalitarianism. 
  • There are legit concerns, but vaccine passports would allow businesses to open much faster, and potentially provide us with greater freedoms during the pandemic.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The culture war is where nuance, intellectual consistency, and common sense go to die.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has provided some very dumb culture war battlefields. 

It appears “vaccine passports” have become the latest campaign in this brain-numbing, soul-depleting culture war.

There are reasonable arguments to be made about the efficacy and ethics of such “passports,” but where’s the fun in being reasonable? 

It is a culture war, after all. 

Why nitpick over costs and benefits when you can just go straight to invoking the Holocaust, the Soviet gulags, and … Satan? 

New York’s “vaccine passport” comes to a smartphone near you

New York just introduced the “Excelsior Pass” — named for the state’s motto, Latin for “ever upward.” The pass provides a hack-proof QR code as proof of vaccination. 

It’s ostensible purpose is to allow businesses and venues hosting large numbers of people to safely, and swiftly, reopen. Madison Square Garden is an early adopter of the technology.

I tested out the Excelsior app, and given the absolute fiasco that has been just about every aspect of New York’s COVID response, I was surprised how easily it all worked. 

Excelsior asks for your name and birth date, then provides multiple choices questions to prove the date, location, and type of your vaccination. Within moments, voila! You’ve got a vaccine passport that’s transferable to an app or digital wallet. 

You may be the type of libertarian or small-government conservative who trembles at the thought of handing over such private information to “Big Brother.” But it’s a little late for that. 

If you’ve taken a COVID test or received a vaccine, you’re already in the state’s database. Contact tracing is, after all, basic pandemic management. 

But it’s completely fair to ask why the government hadn’t thoroughly prepared the public for “vaccine passports,” rather than rolling them out with so many unanswered questions, right at the exact moment vaccinations become available to most adults. 

If there’s one lesson repeatedly learned the hard way throughout this pandemic, it’s that effective and honest communication with the public is the best way to get the most people believing that there’s a well-thought out plan to respond to this upheaval.  

One assumes that given such a long lead time, the government could have addressed a good number of these challenges by now.

For instance, CNN medical analyst and infection control expert Dr. Kent Sepkowitz cautioned that the Excelsior Pass comes with some glaring flaws and might have been rushed out of “deference to strictly financial measures or to the collective eagerness to resume a less-constrained daily life.” 

The sudden imposition of the “pass” and the lack of clear limitations on how and where it will be required have created the necessary vacuum for a panic. And many libertarian and further-to-the-right figures are more than happy to fill that void.

Former Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., listens to debate on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 19, 2019.Associated Press

Libertarians and conservatives love nuance until they don’t 

The Republican turned Libertarian former congressman Justin Amash — for better and for worse — was one of the most principled members of the House over the past decade. His public explanations for nearly all of his congressional votes on constitutional grounds were a rare and refreshing look behind the curtain at this country’s levers of power.

Amash was so principled that he essentially ended his own electoral career when he took on former President Donald Trump’s rampant constitutional abuses, making himself a pariah in the Trump-sycophantic GOP. 

So it’s disappointing, though not terribly surprising, that Amash tweeted: “It doesn’t get much more dystopian than being required to show your ‘health papers’ wherever you go.” The implication being that even a simple trip to the grocery store will invite the Gestapo-esque demand of “your papers, please.”

Such a sweeping generalization flattens the entire discussion into a false choice between “freedom” vs. “authoritarianism.”

Libertarians profess to believe in property rights and freedom of association. Many dogmatic libertarians defended the rights of Christian cake-makers to refuse to cater a gay wedding on such grounds. 

This conundrum begs the obvious question: Why can’t a private business refuse admission to people who can’t prove they don’t pose a risk for spreading a virus that’s killed over 550,000 Americans and counting? 

The question might be obvious, but the answers aren’t. 

Public schools (as well as many private educational institutions) have long required proof of inoculation for any number of communicable diseases. 

Many countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, have required “vaccine passports” for years.

And forbidding private entities from asking one’s vaccination status will inevitably force them to treat everyone as though they’re unvaccinated, which would naturally mean curbing everyone’s freedoms indefinitely. 

At the same time, private businesses being granted the right to “discriminate” against people based on their vaccination status invites a host of civil rights concerns. 

It’s complicated! It requires thoughtful, good-faith debate and discussion. But you won’t find that on much of the “liberty” side of this battle.

Instead, the knee-jerk “anti-passport” peanut gallery has leaped into action with reckless hyperbole. 

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has promised an executive order forbidding private businesses from setting up their own rules requiring proof of vaccination, calling the idea “unacceptable.”

The Libertarian Party of Kentucky invoked the Holocaust in a tweet reading, “Are the vaccine passports going to be yellow, shaped like a star, and sewn on our clothes?”

The GOP’s most prominent new Trumpist avatar Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene mused that vaccine passports could be “Biden’s mark of the Beast,” and represented “fascism…or communism, whatever you want to call it.” 

Greene ultimately settled on “corporate communism” to describe the prospect of private companies requiring proof of vaccination to enter their facilities.

The screeching rhetoric — to say nothing of the intellectual inconsistencies — are why this very important national conversation stands little chance of finding a reasonable middle ground. 

We should be skeptical of encroaching government mandates as prerequisites for living our lives. 

But, at the risk of sounding like an unprincipled squish, perhaps we shouldn’t immediately leap to Holocaust comparisons — which are typically the death of an argument’s seriousness.  

Businesses aren’t looking for reasons to exclude people. After more than a year on life support, they want as many customers as they can get. They just don’t want to have their customers die unnecessarily, or be held liable in lawsuits for creating an unsafe work environment. 

Businesses want vaccine passports so they can serve more, not fewer, customers. That’s what they’re doing in Israel, which is reopening faster than just about anywhere in the world, right now. 

And while anti-regulation libertarians might not always remember this, it is possible to demand the government regulate itself. With clearly enumerated limitations on how much and how long the government can store our personal information, panic over imminent dystopia can be somewhat tamped down. 

Vaccine passports could provide the opportunity to give us all more — not less — freedom. 

Get the latest coronavirus business & economic impact analysis from Business Insider Intelligence on how COVID-19 is affecting industries.

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