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16th Apr 2021

How a Caribbean volcano exposes the danger of vaccine passports

The dark consequences of vaccine passports and vaccine inequality have been laid bare during the eruption of a volcano on a Caribbean island

Nadine Batchelor-Hunt

The dark consequences of vaccine passports and vaccine inequality have been laid bare during the eruption of a volcano on a Caribbean island

The small island of St Vincent located on the edge of the Antilles in the Caribbean is currently experiencing a humanitarian crisis. The eruption of the volcano on the island, La Soufrière, on Friday last week hurled debris into the air, coating everything in its path in ash and poisoning reservoirs. Drinking water on the island is scarce. Experts say the eruption is “destroying everything in its path” as it continues to explode, with the largest explosion so far coming on Monday. 

Over the weekend Erouscilla Joseph, director of the University of the West Indies’  Seismic Research Centre, told Press Association: “Anybody who would have not heeded the evacuation, they need to get out immediately.” And prime minister Ralph Gonsalves said: “It is time for you to leave”, adding “it is dangerous.” 16,000 residents evacuated ahead of the eruption on Friday, but following the latest, larger explosion tens of thousands remain. Many families are refusing to evacuate despite the warnings. 

However in a disturbing turn of events, many residents who want to leave have effectively been told they cannot get off the island by certain routes. Despite the prime minister telling many remaining residents to evacuate, they have been told they will only be allowed onboard certain evacuation cruise ships if they had been fully vaccinated. Those who have been vaccinated very recently will have to wait several days to leave. “If people are willing to welcome you at a time of Covid-19, they will wish you to have the highest level of protection possible,” Gonsalves said. It is here that the grotesque consequences of not just vaccine inequality, but the concept of vaccine passports, are laid bare. Vaccine requirements to enter a country can penalise those that are most vulnerable, as we are seeing with would-be refugees in St Vincent. And this is something that is further exacerbated by the fact that vaccines are not being distributed equally.

At present, just 12,124 people in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have been recorded as vaccinated – about 11 people in every 100. Meanwhile, wealthier countries have far higher vaccination rates: Israel stands at 119 doses administered per 100 people, the United Arab Emirates at 93 per hundred people, the UK at 59 doses per 100 people, and the United States at 57 per hundred people. Such inequity will not only cost lives in deaths from Covid-19, but has now, and will continue to produce, a vaccine lottery in humanitarian crises.

This grotesque inequity is creating a situation where vaccinated lives are worth more than their unvaccinated counterparts, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has consistently lambasted wealthier countries for driving this vaccine inequality. “There remains a shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines,” said Director General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Friday. “On average in high-income countries, almost one in four people have received a Covid-19 vaccine. In low-income countries, it’s one in more than 500.” And while certain cruise ship companies have said they will only require a negative PCN test to board evacuation vessels in St Vincent, like vaccines there is an inequity in testing capacity and pandemic response resources. At the start of the pandemic last year, the World Bank provided $4.5 million in funding to help support St Vincent’s pandemic response as part of a broader scheme to assist developing countries.

In the UK, vaccine passports have mainly become a debate centred around the libertarian consequences of introducing them. Labour have described vaccine passports as “un-British”, and Conservative backbenchers have described them as “discriminatory” and “entirely incompatible with freedom.” But, as is apparent with the developing situation in St Vincent, the consequences of vaccine passports have another, more sinister aspect to them. The international normalisation of blanket vaccine passports, like vaccine inequality, have the potential for a devastating human cost. 

As smoke billows out of La Soufrière, refugees on St Vincent are trapped between lava and rescue vessels denying them entry over a vaccine the overwhelming majority of them have not yet been offered. So, while in theory passports may appear convenient to many, the negative repercussions that go beyond libertarian concerns cannot be overlooked; a one dimensional approach to vaccine passports ignores the multifaceted and potentially lethal challenges they create.