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Here’s what Quebec can learn from other regions with vaccination passport systems

Here's what Quebec can learn from other regions with vaccination passport systems-Milenio Stadium-Canada
New York state’s Excelsior Pass app is a digital pass that people can download to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. Quebec announced on Thursday that vaccine passports would only be used if the province were hit by a fourth wave of COVID-19. (NY Governor’s Press Office/The Associated Press)

Quebec could soon have a vaccine passport system in place that would keep people who aren’t fully vaccinated away from bars, gyms and festivals, yet there are plenty of questions about how it would be implemented and enforced — and whether it’s even necessary.

Vaccine passports ignite debate over privacy vs. public health

Health Minister Christian Dubé announced on Thursday that vaccine passports would only be used if the province were to be hit by a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases.

The system is meant as an alternative to generalized lockdown restrictions. Rather than shutting down parts of the economy, vaccine passports would instead limit where people who are not fully vaccinated can go.

Beyond that, details are scarce, and ethical concerns are being raised. Looking at other jurisdictions that use similar systems could give Quebecers an idea of what to expect and how useful passports can be.

In Manitoba, authorities have been issuing a proof-of-immunization card to residents who are fully vaccinated, which allows people to skip quarantine upon returning from travel within Canada and gives them more visitation rights at hospitals and long-term care homes.

“You can get it as a plastic card with a barcode on it,” said Arthur Schafer, founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

“So that’s important because it means that people who don’t own smartphones or who don’t have an internet connection and can’t go online can nevertheless have proof that they’ve been vaccinated.”

COVID-19 vaccine-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Manitoba has hit some snags in its rollout, with international students unable to access cards and its human rights commission inundated with calls about ethical concerns. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

But Manitoba has hit some snags in its rollout, with international students unable to access cards and its human rights commission inundated with calls from people expressing ethical concerns.

Quebec’s human rights watchdog, the Ligue des droits et libertés, also has concerns about the system’s impact on the rights and freedoms of Quebecers. In a statement Friday, it called for a public consultation in which the National Assembly and civil society would participate.

Meanwhile, Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce is calling on the government to allow use of immunization certificates in Quebec as soon as possible, looking to Israel and Denmark as inspiration.

“We are thinking in particular of restaurants, bars and cultural institutions, which still cannot operate at full capacity,” Michel Leblanc, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, said in a statement on Friday.

He noted that the two countries implemented the use of their passes when the percentage of their population with two doses was significantly lower than Quebec’s current rate, which was 42 per cent as of Friday.

COVID-19 passport in Israel-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a ‘green pass’ for citizens vaccinated against COVID-19. With rules similar to what’s been proposed in Quebec, the system was retired after a surge in vaccinations and low COVID-19 case counts. (Associated Press/Avigail Uzi)

Israel, which was the first country both in and out of the vaccination passport game, issued a “green pass” in February, with rules similar to what Quebec is proposing.

Places like restaurants, hotels, gyms and theatres were off limits to non-pass holders, but thanks to a significant uptick in vaccinations within a few months, the state of more than nine million residents retired its green pass as of June 1. It was initially set to remain in place for six months.

Israel’s system seemed to have worked, according to Jovana Stojanovic with Concordia University’s department of health in Montreal, but she urged Quebec and other jurisdictions to “not look at this as one specific [example] in isolation.”

Stojanovic said much depends on reaction from those who are vaccine hesitant, citing some backlash in the United Kingdom over similar vaccine pass plans earlier this year.

But given the way vaccination rates are rising, it’s likely the system will work well in Quebec, if it’s even needed at all, she said.

Figure out enforcement, says doctor

For experts and businesses alike, Quebec needs to be clear about who will be enforcing the rules in order for the system to run smoothly.

New York, for example, was the first U.S. state to launch a digital proof-of-vaccination or negative test system called the Excelsior Pass. But while larger ticketed events, such as concerts at Madison Square Garden, require proof of vaccination, most hard-hit businesses eager to return to normal don’t ask for it.

Kim Lavoie, chair of behavioural medicine at Université du Québec à Montréal, fears similar situations, telling Radio-Canada’s Tout un matin on Friday that she sees “big problems between people who want access to places and the owners who have to refuse them.” She demanded Quebec provide better guidelines about who will be enforcing the vaccine policy.

Already, some organizations and businesses across Canada and the U.S. have implemented their own, including some university and college campuses.

For Manitoba’s Schafer, adding alternatives to vaccination — like the Calgary Stampede, which allows people to either undergo rapid testing or provide proof of vaccination — is a way of sidestepping some human rights complaints while Quebec firms up what it intends to do come September.

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