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The return of the flying superman

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaCovid-19 passports will pose serious technical and ethical challenges. But they are a step in the right direction if standardised protocols are put in place.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Shanghai immigration keeps watch on the tarmac

Immigration detail in full PPE at Shanghai's Pudong Airport keeps a close eye from the tarmac as passengers deplane from an international flight.

Nietzsche was right. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Having survived oil embargoes, SARS, and market crashes – none of which inspired global solidarity – it has fallen to a clever and insidious bug to finally get airlines and august bodies like IATA and ICAO out of their bunkers to sing from the same song sheet. But come together they have, to sensibly script standardised travel and health protocols to replace the current approach, best described as headless chicken.

Top of the agenda is a possible Covid-19 passport that would bear unique electronic passenger data on inoculations and travel. Taking a bold stand that is likely to be emulated, Qantas wants all international passengers to have proof of a Covid vaccination when this becomes broadly available by spring or summer of 2021.

The demand for inoculation is neither new nor outlandish. Yellow fever, cholera, hepatitis and typhoid shots have long been part of the necessary tedium for travellers to certain areas in Asia and Africa.

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Whether this is a tragic portent for anti-vaxxers and Neo-Luddites remains to be seen but what appears more certain is that relatively safe corridors can at last be set up with immunity passports unlike the brave but blighted bilateral travel bubbles.

Hong Kong and Singapore, two cities with strong coronavirus curbs and populations willing to adopt smart measures like masks and distancing, showed how such a corridor might function. The cancellation of the travel bubble one day before its November launch, as the former British colony’s fourth wave took effect, also showed why deals like this are risky at best and spectacularly prone to failure.

{Electronic Covid-19 passports and new protocols should not be confused with super immunity. There is always Kryptonite around the corner...

Standardised testing metrics and QR codes (strongly advocated by China) offer a more stable workaround for travellers. Yes, this opens up a can of worms when it comes to privacy and personal data being scooped up not just by the all-seeing state but private parties like airlines, airports and, possibly, hotels, vaccine purveyors and others strung out along the information chain.

Present your boarding pass at an airport duty-free shop and your flight data and name flash up on a screen with scant concern for privacy. No one has really asked why boarding details need to be scanned when a visual check might suffice.

Yet, information is collected and analysed by advertisers, vendors, and customs bureaus. In some countries airport retailers may claim back hefty VAT from the government unbeknownst to travellers. At many airports even shops selling non-dutiable goods may demand to see or scan a boarding pass though passengers are under no obligation to produce it. This sort of gratuitous guff has become a divine right.

But this is small beer compared to potential exposure on a Covid-19 passport perhaps linked to an electronic passport, a data rich digital chain with sensitive information that could be waylaid. Credit cards are frequently compromised. E-passports with biometric data present a particularly inviting target. As black hats might say, anything with a chip in it can be hacked.

Contactless travel (at hotels and airports) and the broad usage of radio frequency identification or RFID have greatly expanded vulnerability to data theft. RFID tags are increasingly ubiquitous in credit cards, passports, grocery packaging, medical devices or even innocuous pet identification implants. Scanners, usually requiring proximity to the target, can pick up customer information while a credit card is seemingly secure in the pocket. Hence the growing interest in specially lined ‘electronically opaque’ wallets that do a better job than cheaper DIY aluminium foil.

Securing passenger data is the key challenge for airlines then as they consider Covid-19 passports that will exchange digital handshakes with a range of other devices.

Covid tracking apps that must be installed on smartphones have raised eyebrows, and rightly. Digital chains are only as strong as the weakest link. The focus now must be on firmly securing any electronic add-on and stress testing it to the fullest rather than rushing for early adoption because of the financial pilliwinks in travel industry pockets.

That travel business is haemorrhaging, in many cases beyond hope of succour, is a fact. Time is not on its side. And this is where mistakes can happen. The simple act of standardising tests is itself a monstrous task. In Hong Kong alone, Air India flights have suffered frequent bans due to the high rate of imported Covid cases despite the pre-flight screening measures. Clearly, test efficacy is neither a given nor a constant. In a darker vein, the same holds true for ethics. Some passengers may be tempted to bypass a test with the help of a stuffed envelope slipped under the counter. It is known to happen. So the risk is not entirely electronic.

Immunity passports throw up as many problems (both ethical and practical) as they solve. Who will manage this process in each country and will that person or department be legally bound – or simply honour bound – to vigorously defend protocol? What happens to non-vaccinated travellers – anti-vaxxers are legion – or those for whom such inoculation is medically contraindicated? Surely freedom of movement is a right? These issues need to be seriously addressed.

And what of the general movement of supposedly low-risk people (with a Covid-19 passport) or those who have recovered and arguably acquired some level of immunity? Could they be granted further concessions – doing away with social distancing for one – to enable care for an elderly parent or the sick? There is some pushback on this as the immune response among recovered patients remains a doggedly grey area.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is determining whether vaccinated persons or those who have emerged from SARS-CoV-2 can still carry the virus and thus prove to be a dangerous transmission vector. Worryingly, studies on vaccinated macaques, suggests this may be the case.

Covid passports should not be confused with super immunity. There is always Kryptonite around the corner.

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