Felicia Wong

Vaccine passports – a 21st-century ‘apartheid’?

Felicia's is CMF's Head of Doctors' Ministries and a GP in London
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

Vaccine passports are proof of COVID-19 vaccination status as a condition of participation in certain activities, including employment, education, travel and social engagement. In July, Nadhim Zahawi, the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, stated that by the end of September, the UK Government plans ‘to make full vaccination a condition of entry to nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather’ in England. Proof of a negative test will no longer be sufficient. It has not been made clear what the definition of a ‘large crowd’ is and hence whether this will apply to churches or not.

In Scotland yesterday (9 September 2021),  the Holyrood Governments announced that Covid vaccine passports for public venues would come into law from 1 October. This morning (10 September), US President Biden announced a Covid vaccine mandate for millions of federal government workers.

In addition to these statutory plans, some universities, airlines and, in some parts of the world, whole cities are starting to make vaccination a condition for education, employment and social interaction, with businesses adopting a ‘no jab, no job’ policy.

For those who are already fully vaccinated, this is not personally an issue. However, there are many in our society who have chosen not to be vaccinated, whether for conscience reasons such as the use of aborted fetal cell lines in vaccine research or development, uncertainty about long term safety data of mRNA vaccines. Many ethnic minorities have (historically not totally unfounded) fears of government public health measures as means of social control in their communities and have chosen not to be vaccinated for fear of being used as guinea pigs, or for religious reasons. There are many other reasons too.

As Christians, we need to think about the unvaccinated minority and the enormous implications on society. Many will be discriminated against and marginalised, excluded from participating in aspects of everyday social life, potentially losing their livelihood and their dignity; treated as ‘outcasts’ – ostracised by society. A BMJ blog earlier in the year raised these concerns and noted that since certain groups are already under-represented in the vaccine statistics, adding vaccine passports could result ‘in a form of vaccine apartheid.’ This is strong language, but I have chosen to include the word ‘apartheid’ not frivolously but carefully. In Afrikaans, it means ‘apartness’ and was used in South Africa to deny a group of people access to certain jobs, education, healthcare and leisure (shops and restaurants) on the ground of race.

Nurses with whom I work, especially those from ethnic minorities, have felt pressurised to be vaccinated for fear of losing their jobs; and I’ve heard many sad stories of care home staff quitting their jobs to look for employment elsewhere, ahead of the Government’s plan to enforce vaccination for workers who are not exempt, in November.

In the interests of public health and safety, and protecting the vulnerable, we can see that one main aim of the vaccine passport is to encourage uptake of the vaccine, which is highly commendable.

However, incentives, coercion, and penalties such as exclusion from employment, education and society, would contravene the principles of autonomy and informed consent as well as engendering injustice and discrimination. Rather than protecting the vulnerable, vaccine passports risk excluding them from society and jeopardising them further.

And we are risking this segregation, division and distress over something which may not even achieve the goal for which it was intended. There is still uncertainty about the efficacy and duration of protection offered by the vaccine, and its impact on the transmissibility of the virus, and those who are vaccinated can still transmit the dominant Delta variant of the virus, thereby weakening the underlying premise of the case for vaccine passports.

If we as Christians are not alert, it will be easy for us to become no different to the culture around us. ‘Health and Safety’ is the paramount consideration trumping all other values and concerns. We put our faith in human solutions, irrespective of whether they transgress good and right godly principles. We recall to our shame that the Church was silent and passive by allowing (or in some cases colluding with) historical atrocities that took place in apartheid South Africa and the US. While the temporary exclusion of some young people from nightclubs does not come anywhere close to these injustices, effectively denying certain minorities access to education or employment is a different matter.

What does God say about this? Our God has a heart for the marginalised and oppressed, for the despised and voiceless. He is a God who shows no partiality and executes justice and righteousness (Psalm 103:6, 146:7-9). As his people, we are called to do the same (Micah 6:8). By keeping silent and allowing these things to take place, it will open the door to more injustice and marginalisation which is grievous to God (Isaiah 59:14-16, James 2:1-12).

So what should we do?

I do not purport to have all the answers, but we can all pray, and ask God to put a stop to injustice and discrimination.

For those of us who have had the full course of vaccination, I would suggest that we choose not to go to places that require vaccine passports and consider boycotting companies that have ‘no jab, no job’ policies. We can also make the most of opportunities to speak up against the misuse of ‘vaccine passports’ in the public square, explaining the heart of God and our Christian beliefs.

It takes courage and conviction to do this – to make a stand and be a voice for the marginalised and ‘poor’ of our society even when it does not personally affect us. As those who serve a God who cares for the ‘poor and oppressed’, however, one way we can demonstrate our distinctiveness is in making these costly stands.

You could also consider writing to your MP to ask them to not only oppose the vaccine passport but to make it illegal in this country for any organisation to exclude people from employment, education, and access to social venues on the basis of vaccination status. To find out who your MP is and how to contact them, visit this site.

CMF also has a ‘Health and Justice’ training track if you would like to engage with these kinds of issues more regularly. Please contact me if you would like to discuss this further.

This is an enormous uphill battle, which may feel impossible, but our God is great, and he is able to achieve all good things for his glory.

Psalm 106:3 – Blessed are they who observe justice,
who do righteousness at all times!

Addendum: the UK Government announced on Sunday 12 September that England would not be introducing vaccine passports. On Tuesday 14 September, they launched the COVID-19 Response: Autumn and Winter Plan 2021 in which vaccine passports will continue to be a ‘Plan B’ option should the rate of hospitalisation and infection increase above manageable levels. The situation remains fluid.

Felicia Wong is a GP in London and CMF’s Head of Doctors’ Ministries

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