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Vax Passports: The Medium Is the Message


As the concept of vaccine certificates began tickling the fancy of certain segments of the public last spring and summer, opponents reliably invoked Orwell in response to what came to be called “freedom passports,” “green passes,” or other such cute names. 

The public intellectual that came to my mind, though, was Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan coined his renowned maxim, “The medium is the message,” in 1964’s Understanding Media, which became a bible of sorts for a subculture of college-aged nerds and beatniks who were coming to terms with a new era overwhelmed by mass communication.

McLuhan was not solely focused on the effects of traditional media. His media theory begins with the messages conveyed by everyday objects. He explained how a medium’s message extends beyond its content — a garden in front of a house might have flowers as its content, but its message could be, “Respectable people live here.”

Look at the cards in your wallet. What do they say? A driver’s licence has content, but in certain environments it says, “I am of drinking age.” A platinum credit card has numbers and color as its content, but might broadcast a more powerful message than a driver’s licence — it could tell the person serving you to treat you with deference. 

A vaccine certificate likewise has a simple amount of content, but with greater and more potent messages. Users will say that these objects simply say, “I am safe.” When arguing that the unvaccinated are foolish, selfish, stupid, libertarian, or right wing, many passholders likely hope on some semiconscious level that the certificate also broadcasts their intelligence, ethics, and political leanings — that it says, “I did the right thing, therefore I deserve entry.” If this does not describe you, if you are using your pass reluctantly, there are others who see your pass as well as their own much differently.

This is what has made the vaccine certificates so incendiary. They contain messages of social and moral superiority that have been inflaming tensions, conflict, acrimony, and occasional violence throughout Western nations. 

As these certificates were readying for their debut in Canada last August, I assumed that asserting my opposition in a Facebook post wouldn’t be that controversial. But if anyone on my list of 280 or so friends supported me, they stayed silent, while others rose to strongly differ. One acquaintance who works for a socialist NGO didn’t understand how the right to enter shops and restaurants could be considered a civil liberty.

We all know the arguments by now, and it doesn’t take much guessing what else was said in that particular Facebook thread. The comparisons to driver’s licenses and seatbelt laws, the need to wipe Covid off the face of the planet, and such. It was my first exposure to what has become familiar to anyone who argues against green passes and mandates — the circular debate in which the ostensible public health argument, when shown to be reactionary and without scientific backing, devolves into a call for punishment and ostracization. “If these people won’t do the right thing for society, they don’t deserve the same daily privileges I do.” When pressed on whether this punishment goes too far, the argument loops back to the defeated public health position: “I deserve to be safe in my workplace,” despite having been fully vaccinated. 

But it’s always the “punishment” that the green-pass proponents fall back on: “Your vaccine protects you from the unvaccinated.” Yes, but I could get a breakthrough infection. “But the chances of a breakthrough landing you in hospital are astronomically low.” Yes, but I could then pass it on to an immunocompromised person. “As you admit, vaccinated people can carry and transmit the virus. So the green pass is not doing much good.” Look, these people are anti-science right-wingers. They’re thoughtless and selfish. If they don’t want the vax, then good riddance.

This shows that we are now certifying morality, perhaps a historical first. We are also doing something else modern societies have never practiced: mandating that a product be consumed rather than restricted. Whether or not you believe this is for a necessary purpose, we must admit these truths, and that we never would have tolerated such practices up until a few months ago.

Vaccine certificates are without doubt holding one group of people accountable for not reaching the same moral conclusion as another. Let’s accept the position that two societies are up for offer: One being the world of overcrowded hospitals and burnt-out healthcare workers; the other a world of conflict where everyone from restaurant servers to employers to politicians to the police are kicking people out of diners, firing workers, sending people into segregated camps, tear gassing and cracking skulls of mandate protesters, where millions of friendships and family relationships are fractured by arguments in which only one side is considered valid and righteous.

Neither world is desirable, but there are those who would legitimately risk Door #1 to avoid Door #2, including many physicians and healthcare workers.

There are yet others who would argue that healthcare workers signed up for a job in which overcrowded hospitals are a regular occurrence and occasional hard-hitting pandemics were expected. Vax-pass proponents have in fact shown their hand by gleefully accepting the firings of hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers in the midst of what is said to be an unprecedented healthcare crisis. If we have the luxury of picking and choosing which workers are “safe” to be around patients who are either vaccinated or are already infected with Covid, then perhaps this argument about the unvaccinated collapsing our healthcare systems — which I once found convincing — is not as serious as is being stated.

As for my freedoms, I did not get vaccinated to take part in a formal scapegoating program that has led to an artificially more violent, aggressive, and polarized society. A person using a green pass must now live in moral relation to the unvaccinated, an imposed anxiety that itself is a strange loss of psychological freedom (unless the thought is perversely enjoyed). As well, my autonomous decision to do my part for society is invalidated by a document that at the very least adds a bureaucratic hassle to my life, and at the most forces agreement to a principle I despise — making visible targets out of a minority of citizens.

Whether or not the vaccines are safe or worth taking chances with is not the point. I have my own opinions about the range of Covid vaccines available around the world, and I am convinced by the scientific literature that shows certain levels of occasional harms to specific groups of people. I have taken the one I felt most comfortable with given my age, gender, and health status. But since I have the right to refuse certain Covid vaccines in favor of the brand I trust, I would be a hypocrite to say that someone else does not have the right to distrust the brand I took, or any other. 

I would like to think that ethics cannot be dictated to the individual, but as we have discovered, it is now being done. Keep in mind that unvaccinated people are not breaking any laws, which is why the green pass compliers must act as extrajudicial arbitrators and enforcers. To understand that point, a person driving without a licence would be dealt with by police, not hectored and moralized at by other drivers; tax cheats would get their day in court, not have their manager forced to fire them without trial. The unvaccinated are having their concerns tried in the court of public opinion and are being sentenced by their neighbors.

The original intent of the certificate system was to keep the unvaccinated out of the bagel shop or the public swimming pool, which was bad enough, but the growing punishments now include termination of employment, and some countries such as Austria and Germany have descended to considering fines and imprisonment to force the consumption of a product many believe to be unsafe. 

Although countries such as the UK, the US or Canada might not have reached such extremes (yet?), it’s not difficult to see how certificates in these places could be extended to bank accounts, driver’s license renewals, home insurance premiums, or apartment leases. Impossible, you say? Where we are now was considered impossible a year ago, unthinkable two years ago.

From the beginning of this program, no consideration was ever given to how vaccine confidence and uptake could be encouraged without coercion, or whether passes and mandates are resulting in vaccination rates not much different than would occur voluntarily. Many researchers in the social sciences have said that Covid certificates can have the opposite effect than intended, and this can be attributed to the fact that people resent having their morals dictated to them.

Just as McLuhan said that “the medium is the message,” it is just as true that “the passes are the point.” The goal was only ostensibly to increase vaccination rates and reduce healthcare burdens, but the medium of the green pass contains messages that are intoxicating to large segments of the population. Carrying a vaccine certificate and exhibiting it several times a day allows the holder to demonstrate virtue and moral superiority to his or her community. This certification of “ethical supremacy” is what has allowed the public to accept the stigmatization and ever-increasing extrajudicial punishments of a newly identifiable minority.

Another McLuhanesque message of the green pass is that a vaccine is the only tool to overcome the pandemic. As such, I would question the morality of a society that ignores prevention and treatment options for those who are suspicious of the “new tech” Covid vaccines but are otherwise willing to take other vaccines. 

For instance, established flu vaccines and the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine have been shown to greatly reduce the effects of Covid and cut hospitalizations, as has daily low-dose Aspirin use. These options have never been discussed or encouraged as alternatives for those wary of the Covid vaccines. Neither has there been any meaningful effort to promote health and fitness as a way to keep immune systems in shape and ready to battle disease, as has been common in government health promotion campaigns in non-pandemic times.

Similarly, the public and media at large have not jumped on the monoclonal antibody therapy bandwagon with the same fervor as vaccination. While manufacturing and distribution would be current barriers to global uptake of this product, the existing supply is nonetheless suppressed by bureaucratic roadblocks and a lack of will on the part of Western leadership to prioritize this highly effective option to beat back Covid.

I could go on. The bottom line is that vax-pass societies seem to want the unvaccinated to remain vulnerable, get sick, and become visibly hospitalized rather than stay healthy by means not involving a Covid vaccine. 

This state of affairs allows the green-pass advocates to maintain documentation of moral superiority, yet it is the fixation on a limited selection of vaccine brands to the exclusion of other treatment and prevention options that itself could be judged as immoral. However, the morality of accepting a wide variety of treatment and prevention options cannot be easily documented, as there is no singular medical ritual to undergo.

Some governments and political bodies have been making principled stands against vaccine certificates. Japan has outright rejected the concept, with its health ministry bluntly advising its citizens and businesses to “not discriminate against those who have not been vaccinated,” while the British Liberal Democratic Party says that “the use of so-called ‘vaccine passports’ provides a false sense of security.” Taiwan, where I live, has also ruled out the use of such vaccine documents for public socializing. 

While this provides some hope, such principles can be abandoned under pressure from the public or perhaps corporate lobbyists. It was only five months ago that Canadian leaders on the left and the right were objecting to vaccine certificates. The provincial health officer for British Columbia’s leftist government, Bonnie Henry, stated unequivocally

“This virus has shown us that there are inequities in our society that have been exacerbated by this pandemic, and there is no way that we will recommend inequities be increased by use of things like vaccine passports for services, for public access here in British Columbia. That’s my advice and I’ve got support from the premier.” 

Alberta’s conservative premier was also dead-set against green passes. Both provinces flipped. There must be dozens of other examples of such rapid conversions throughout the West.

I suspect there is a large portion of the public, perhaps a majority, holding vaccine certificates merely out of convenience because this is “the new normal,” without necessarily being certain of the document’s usefulness. While I don’t want to lay down a lecture, I’m hoping that increasing numbers will begin to see that there is a connection between flashing a green pass to enter a gym and allowing artificially created inequities and conflicts to continue growing worldwide. 

When you see this cartoon from the daily German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung showing a man playing a video game called Covidstrike, in which he shoots unvaccinated people to bloody deaths (“a big hit under the Christmas tree”), you might be disgusted and say, “Well, that’s someplace else, and people here would never advocate violence like that.” I would respond: Firing unvaccinated people would have been considered impossible last year. What comes next year? Once you identify a minority and single it out for discrimination, no matter how noble the intention might have originally been, all bets are off. Violence is possible. 

Are green passes worth stoking this kind of conflict? If I had been fired from a job for refusing a medication that I don’t need or want, whose usefulness in preventing disease spread was highly debatable, I might become angry enough to lash out in some way as well. Using a green pass to have drinks with friends has a direct link to this new world of strife, confusion, and alienation.

Many innocent parties will experience some form of discrimination themselves when they follow a medical practitioner’s incorrect advice on a booster schedule and a bureaucrat renders them technically unvaccinated, or when a green pass system crashes and leaves them unable to get into a coffee shop or board a plane

Having lived in Taiwan for nearly three years, where Covid has been scarce and vaccine rollouts delayed, I can only speculate how I would have reacted to the pandemic and the introduction of vax certificates had I remained in Canada. 

I am certain that I would have rushed to take the first Covid vaccine available, based on my feelings last January. I am also certain that I would have refused to use a green pass when they took effect in September. Or I would have used a paper version that I would have framed on cardboard with a message of protest — “I don’t fear the unvaccinated,” or “This is a fascist document” — and used it scarcely.

What each person does with their vaccine certificate — enjoy it, use it with protest, refuse to go anywhere that requires it — is an individual choice. I just hope that a growing number of people wake up to what the green pass truly represents, and realize that countries and other jurisdictions that don’t use them are on average not doing worse in battling Covid, all the while avoiding social strife. And the places that do use passes are in the midst of a disturbing experiment.

The medium of the green pass broadcasts a message that is tearing our societies apart. It’s time to turn this medium off and find a new message after everyone steps back and contemplates what has been done.

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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