Politics

Republican claims about vaccine passports ignore the real facts about ‘travel papers’

As WYNL reports, New York Rep. Ritchie Torres is just one of several Democratic lawmakers pushing for vaccines to be a requirement for domestic travel. Other countries, including Canada, have already added proof of vaccination as a requirement for getting on board a plane or a non-local train. Adding such a requirement in the United States seems like a good idea for two reasons: it would help to prevent the spread of disease, and it would provide more incentive to get vaccinated. 

Getting vaccination to a very high level—somewhere around 90%—is necessary to halt the spread of COVID-19, especially now that the delta variant has set the bar for transmissibility. If any new variant comes in to displace delta, it will only be because this newcomer is more contagious. So beating COVID-19 at this point means bringing delta under control is the minimum. At the moment, just 54.4% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, and since it now looks like it will be late October before the first shots are available to those under 12, getting the vaccination rate for adults as close as possible to 100% is a mandatory step.

As NPR reports, with President Joe Biden putting in place a mandate that requires health care workers, federal employees, and those at large companies to be vaccinated (or have frequent testing), adding a requirement for vaccination to domestic travel seems like a logical step. It’s not just that travelers act as vectors of disease to the places they visit, but airports and airplanes themselves have been hotspots. At the very beginning of the outbreak, a number of nations were able to trace their earliest cases back to chance encounters that happened in the Hong Kong airport. Even when mask requirements are not being thwarted by some Ted Cruz-lookalike showing deliberate scorn for public safety, traveling in a metal tube packed with people is still nerve wracking. Requiring vaccination before travel seems like a good step.

Of course, Republicans are making this idea yet another flashpoint in the war on vaccines that they’ve have instigated, funded, and fueled.

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In this particular little snippet of inanity, Cawthorn, in addition to suggesting that airlines owe us all free tickets, compares a vaccine passport to “apartheid.” Whether suggesting that the persecution and suppression of Black people in South Africa is comparable to a barrier that can be ended through an action that takes less than a minute is worse than the Republicans who have made similar comparisons to the Holocaust is left as an exercise in measuring moral outrage.

The whole idea that there’s a right to “unrestricted travel” which requires the airlines to step aside is ludicrous. The famous “No Fly List” contained over 80,000 names in 2016. That was up from 40,000 three years earlier. That list existed even before 9/11. It was just that, at the time, it contained only 16 names. How many names are on that list today is classified. 

But the biggest change in the airlines actually came five years before 9/11. It happened in the wake of the TWA Flight 800 disaster, when officials suspected that the plane had been exploded by a bomb smuggled on board, similar to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. As happens following many disasters, there was a demand that the government “do something.” Among those changes was an increase in airport security. Not only did metal detectors become much more common, airlines began to demand to see ID at the time of travel and required that the name on the ticket and the name on the ID match.

Truthfully, airlines were the biggest supporter of this rule change. They had, in fact, been pushing for it for years. Not because it provided them with more security, but because it allowed them to stop something that was extremely common in the “Sure, I’m Jim Hobbs” era: Ticket resale. When no one was required to flash an ID, it was all too easy for ticket resellers to pick up seats on multiple flights and sell them off at a profit for last minute travelers, or cancel them if there were no takers. Airlines didn’t have a good idea of how many people really wanted that flight between New York and Sheboygan, and found that offering any discount for buying earlier was just an invitation for the resellers to swoop. 

TWA Flight 800, which likely ended with a structural failure and in-air breakup, provided airlines with the excuse to do something that they had always wanted to do in the first place: require tickets to be matched to IDs. The attacks of 9/11 only nailed down these requirements, adding waving IDs at TSA agents in the security line, and ID requirements on long distance trains. Ultimately, it resulted in “enhanced drivers licenses” and other forms of identification that meet the REAL ID requirements of the Department of Homeland Security.

All those old movies in which the sinister Nazi or KGB agent leans over the shoulder of a nervous traveler and says “papers, please,” the papers in question are their personal identification, not their vaccination history. If Madison Cawthorn wants to try getting onto a plane without refusing to provide an ID to either TSA or the ticket agent, he’ll get a good sense of just how far that “constitutional right” to free and unrestricted travel extends.

Vaccine passports are a good idea that provide an extra level of safety and reassurance to travelers, as well as creating an incentive for vaccination. If Republicans really want to worry about something, have them worry about how we came to have something called the Department of Homeland Security setting standards for our REAL ID that can be demanded by law enforcement and airlines, or for entry into government buildings. Because that just might be a cause for concern.

However, Republicans have been solidly behind the acts that created REAL ID which, under the guise of halting terrorism, provides the kind of universal government-sanctioned identification that many Republicans and Democrats long claimed to fear. And of course, Republicans have been all for requiring identification—lots and lots and lots of identification—when it comes to voting. Somehow, that constitutional right appears to be subject to any arbitrary level of requirement that Republicans can dream up. Unlike the sacred right to board an airplane, which was enshrined by the Founding Fathers.

And now … “Papers, please.”




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