The price of liberty is a QR code

The price of liberty is a QR code
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The data is in. If you are fully vaccinated, the probability of dying of COVID-19 or even seeing the inside of a hospital is incredibly low. And the odds of long-lasting side effects due to the vaccine itself are even lower. So, it is obvious that every single one of us can’t wait to get the vaccine as soon as possible. Right? Wrong, and this counter-intuitive behavior has far-reaching consequences. 

On Sep. 12, 2019 — before the pandemic — the European Commission and the World Health Organization (WHO) co-hosted the first Global Vaccination Summit in Brussels, Belgium. According to the WHO website, “The aim (was) to accelerate global action to stop the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases, and advocate against the spread of vaccine misinformation worldwide.” The so-called “vaccine hesitancy” was selected as one of the 10 threats to global health in 2019, alongside climate change, antimicrobial resistance, Ebola and dengue.

The pushback against vaccines has been the object of many studies. One of them, published by the International Journal of Public Health, suggests that “confidence in the World Health Organization combined with trust in domestic scientists and healthcare professionals is a strong driver of vaccine acceptance across multiple countries/territories.” This is confirmed by a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in late 2020: About 54 percent of Democrats believe “a great deal” that medical scientists act in the best interests of the public, versus only 26 percent of Republicans. Not surprisingly, vaccination rates in red states remain significantly lower than in blue states, as tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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In the U.S. there is at least one precedent where the Supreme Court upheld compulsory vaccination laws. A pastor named Henning Jacobson refused vaccination during an outbreak of smallpox in Cambridge, Mass., in 1902. Three years later, his case (Jacobson v. Massachusetts) was decided by a 7-2 majority where the court declared that "[…] liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own [liberty], whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others." Does this sound familiar?

Trying to convince millions of skeptics that vaccines are safe and effective is not working — and it is unlikely this will change since this behavior is connected to a sense of “belonging” to a particular group. James Clear, the author of “Atomic Habits”, once wrote, “We don't always believe things because they are correct. Sometimes we believe things because they make us look good to the people we care about.” Indeed, several experiments conducted by researchers in the fields of cognition and psychology have shown us time and again that, when faced with a choice between a fact (vaccines work) and a friend with different beliefs, people will most likely choose the friend. This means that other types of technologies will have to be used to keep us safe, including tracking and monitoring.

In April 2020, due to the pandemic, Google and Apple partnered to develop a contact tracing app to anonymously keep track of nearby phones. If one of the owners on this list of phones was diagnosed with the virus, alerts would be sent to people who had been nearby. Data has never been more important — and like every valuable asset, it must be protected and used wisely. Since the beginning of the 2010s, countries have been writing legislation on the matter, and arguably the most famous piece is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Written in 2016 by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, its fundamental objective is to make sure individuals in the European Union and in the European Economic Area have control over their personal data.

The balance between making sure our data is serving us — which may only be achieved by sharing it — while at the same time preserving our rights to privacy is a complex issue, but it is an inevitable discussion. And when faced with a public health crisis, it effectively becomes a priority that requires a strong government response — like the one displayed in France.

The French parliament recently passed legislation requiring a valid health pass for dining, traveling or visiting several public venues. The pass is issued under three conditions: to people who are fully vaccinated; people who tested negative; and people who recently recovered from the virus. The law sparked multiple protests — as expected — but it also dramatically increased the number of people that finally decided to get their shots. The European Union also came up with the Digital Covid Certificate, which can be issued under the same criteria as the French health pass. According to the BBC, “anyone holding a certificate should, in principle, be exempted from testing or quarantine when crossing a border within the EU (or Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein).”

In the U.S., where federal privacy legislation is still being discussed, the harsh realities of a world riddled with an airborne new virus are not going to wait for us; digital vaccine passports — not unlike the International Certification of Vaccination created by the WHO back in 1959 ­— is an important tool that will help all of us getting back to some kind of normalcy. Stored in your phone and enforced by modern authentication techniques, that QR code is a small price to pay to be able to safely enjoy what we took for granted 18 months ago.

Guy Perelmuter is the founder of GRIDS Capital, a deep tech venture capital firm focusing on artificial intelligence, robotics, life science and technological infrastructure. He is the author of “Present Future,” which was recognized by the Brazilian Book Chamber as the Best Science Book of 2020 in the 62nd edition of the annual Jabuti Prize.