🧳 Tech, ethics and vaccine passports

TL; DR – a vaccine passport introduced today would give freedom, movement, and agency to those already better off in health and wealth. That makes a fitting symbol of tech’s tendency to make life better for those already have more; it’s tendency to sacrifice equity at the altar of net-positive impact.

Is the arc of technological progress leading us to a more flourishing life and world?

How can we – by how we think and act – bend tech towards the world we want?

What does flourishing life and world mean, anyway?

Let’s work through these questions together. And so we’re not lost in the abstract, let’s use the hyper-topical example of COVID vaccine passports. A passport you can use to prove your vaccination status for international travel, allowing you to avoid quarantine or get into a country at all.

Alix Dunn, in one of his recent blogs, talks about two ancient approaches to ethics and and how they help us better understand right and wrong in tech. Consequentialism is all about maximising positive consequences, and minimising negative ones. Deontology is all about holding true to a set of values.

Arguments for vaccine passports tend to consequentialism. It’s said: they’ll make life better for some, without making life worse for others. A chunk of the world gets its freedom of movement back. And vaccine passports create economic benefits, for instance for countries reliant on tourism. They have a net-positive impact, increasing the sum of flourishing in the world.

I’m going to offer an alternative take. And in doing so, take an unashamedly deontological view. That is: no amount of net-positive impact is worth the judgement that some lives are less worthy of freedom and agency than others. And no amount of net-positive impact is worth the chasmic equity gap that vaccine passports open up.

Let’s dive into the values at stake here.

Right now, being born in a wealthy country plays the biggest role in whether you have a COVID vaccination. So, under an international vaccine passport regime today, only the wealthy would travel. In other words, wealth and the serendipity of where you were born would literally give you a leg up in life by enhancing your biology. To quote the philosopher Francoise Baylis and biologist Natalie Kofler, vaccine passports create a novel layer of biological inequity. They give you a leg up in life even though – and indeed, because – you were already better off.

I’m writing this piece from Rwanda, where <2% of the population have received two COVID vaccinations. In the United Kingdom, my home for the last 20 years, it’s 52%. Those already lucky enough to be in the UK, with 20x Rwanda’s GDP, are also 25x more likely to be vaccinated.

Those with more, get even more. If you are from a wealthier country, you get a vaccine and immunity from ill health. Then, with a vaccine passport, you also get movement, freedom, and agency. You get these things far beyond what they could without the vaccine passport, and far beyond those who aren’t vaccinated. Vaccine passports codify biological inequity and enhance it with new priveleges. By introducing them into global practice, we judge the lives of some as more worthy than others.

Tech has a habit of doing this. A habit of giving its outsized benefits to those who already have more. Let’s switch to another big, COVID story that further showcases this. A staggering 1.6 billion children were affected by school closures when global lockdowns were at their peak. Of these children, who could access tech to keep learning? Those who already had access to tech like smartphones and laptops. Those who already knew how to use them. Those who already lived in countries with internet connectivity, and in families with supportive parents.

There’s an amazing array of edtech out there, better funded than ever. But to use it, some things already have to be true. You can’t use an edtech app or website without a computer or the internet. You can’t study at home if your house is one room. During my work with EdTech Hub last year, we saw children in Pakistan who couldn’t afford the electricity to charge donated laptops. And we heard from refugee families who had to put children to work, as parents had lost their jobs.

Those with more, got even more (or fall behind less). The equity gap widened. And with the prospect of vaccine passports, it threatens to widen further. Tech might make some people’s lives better, but it often discriminates against those who started further behind. A cost that we justify with consequentialist arguments of net-positive impact. And a trajectory we encourage through legislation like vaccine passports. Even if it comes at the expense of values we cherish, like equity.

What’s more, tech and human rights expert Elizabeth Renieris has written about how vaccine passports may form a gateway to more insidious monitoring of health and movement. Monitoring which might exclude and stigmatise even further. Researching this piece, I found out that it was only under President Obama that the US lifted a ban on entry of HIV-positive people. Who’s to say vaccine passports won’t be the thin end of the wedge; a route to wider digital health identity infrastructure? For the sick, or potentially sick, to have their freedom and agency removed in more permanent ways?

To follow this piece to its logical conclusion: a vaccine passport only becomes ethically permissible once every person in the world has affordable, fair access to vaccination. Otherwise, it’s a mechanism to discriminate. And part of tech’s ever-growing erosion of equity among peoples. An erosion which – if we’re not careful – will bend the arc of technological progress further and further away from the world we want.

🎬 Thanks to Christine Cauthen, OluTimehin Kukoyi, Theresa Sam Houghton and Rishi Phethe for looking at drafts of this post.

🤔 Got thoughts? Don’t keep them to yourself. Email me on asad@asadrahman.io. Let’s figure this out together.

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Banner depicts a nurse preparing to adminster a dose of the AstraZenica/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine in Ghana. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.