Opinion: Conservatives using silly, calculated ‘debate’ over ‘vaccine passports’ to keep their base afraid

COVID-19 passport with QR code on smartphone
(Jasmin Merdan / Getty Images)

The biggest threat to the nation isn’t the prospect of a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, the resurgence of mass shootings or even the looming eviction cliff that could push millions of Americans out of their homes later this year. Nope, the imminent danger to the American way of life comes from digital apps that allow people vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend a live concert, eat inside a restaurant or enjoy a tropical cruise.

At least that’s what one could reasonably conclude from all the outrage emanating from conservative news outlets and politicians in recent days.

The outrage of the moment is over so-called vaccine passports — scannable digital images certifying that you’ve been tested or inoculated for COVID-19, stored on your smartphone to help you gain access to venues or businesses such as stadiums or airlines. Israel is already using these passes for vaccinated people, and Japanese officials said this week that they will start issuing them as well. Other countries are considering something similar. New York rolled out a vaccination certification and testing app last week for arts and entertainment.


Though the passes are mostly still in the developmental stage in the U.S., the news that the Biden administration was working with businesses to set standards for vaccination certification has thrown conservatives into a tizzy, decrying any such requirement as an invasion of privacy, unconstitutional, un-American, undemocratic, dystopian and fascist. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed to ban businesses in his state from requiring a vaccine certification. (You’d almost think this wasn’t the same group happy to force drug testing on welfare recipients.)

And those were the restrained responses. Others equated the use of passes to the yellow Star of David patches that Jewish people were forced to wear during the Holocaust. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) suggested that a vaccine passport would be “Biden’s Mark of the Beast.” Richard Grenell, a former Trump administration official who is considering a run in California’s gubernatorial recall election, speculated on Twitter that it wouldn’t be long before you would be required to add your HIV status to the pass. And author Naomi Wolf went so far as to say on Fox News that vaccine certification will signal “literally the end of human liberty in the West.”


All of this silly foaming at the mouth would be amusing to watch if it weren’t so calculated to keep the GOP base riled up now that the ridiculous face mask furor has died down. Honestly, is there anything that can’t be weaponized in the protracted culture war? It must be exhausting to be a conservative in modern-day America, angry and afraid all the time.

To be clear, the government has no plans to issue vaccination passports, which seems like a wise move given the ineptitude of the California Department of Motor Vehicles in issuing Real IDs. If it is done, it will be undertaken by businesses as part of their reopening protocol. The role for the government, according to Andy Slavitt, acting director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, it is to provide criteria for security, privacy and access.

Certainly, the use of digital vaccination certification apps raises legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. If the government isn’t certifying people’s vaccination status, who would do it and why should we trust them? How would that status be confirmed? What about fraud? Would every business employ a different app that would have to be downloaded? Would our information be stored in some database? What about people without smartphones or those who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons? Does it even make sense to invest in passes when the government says that in a few short months there will be enough vaccines for everyone who wants one?

I have my doubts that widespread use of vaccine certification passes would be practical in such a large and decentralized nation like the U.S., even if they hadn’t already become a political hot potato. But the prospect of it doesn’t scare me, either. Showing proof of vaccination status is nothing new in the U.S.


Parents have to provide documents about their kids’ vaccination status before they can be enrolled in school, and immigrants to the U.S. have to show proof they’ve received a long list of vaccines before they are granted a visa. Some jobs require proof of vaccination.

Heck, many people, myself included, have already had a vaccination passport — a yellow card issued by the World Health Organization to show you’ve obtained the immunizations required of the country you are visiting. It hardly seemed like some grievous assault on my medical privacy. And certainly not the beginning of the end of freedom.