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Vaccine Passports: Balancing The Benefits Against The Risks

Dr Adrian Hyzler, Chief Medical Officer at Healix International provides his perspective on the current debate about Vaccine Passports ahead of the EU Commission’s proposals for a ‘Digital Green Pass’, set to be published on 17th March.

“There’s no question that any initiative that can enable international travel without increasing the risk of infections from COVID-19 will be welcomed by the much beleaguered travel industry and all its associated services. But the lack of discrimination from COVID-19 – it affects every age group, every gender, every race, every socio-economic group – could actually be the potential for a very high risk of discrimination if ‘Vaccine Passports’ are adopted as the only way to allow international travel.

“I want to be clear. I see no harm in a ‘digital immunity certificate’, per se, for ease of verification of vaccination status, especially as this will be easier to verify by authorities and less susceptible to a range of forgeries or indecipherable documentation.  However, I do worry about the further implications of a ‘passport’ or ‘green pass’ that enables those that are vaccinated to do things that others cannot. This form of immune-privilege will disadvantage a number of people, many of whom are already victims of inequity and discrimination, not just as a result of COVID, but dating back well before the pandemic.

“In the last week European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced plans for the creation of a ‘Digital Green Pass’ for EU citizens to travel safely. The proposal is due on March 17 and is being developed in response to pressure from tourism-dependent countries to help them salvage the summer season. However, across the EU there isn’t currently a clear consensus on this approach.

“Concerns about the impact on those not yet eligible or unable to have the vaccine have been raised highlighting the very complicated picture. And that concern must be recognised as a global issue.  For example, South Africa has declined to use its supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine claiming that data shows that it is ineffective against the variant in wide circulation. So will they allow travellers who are vaccinated with this vaccine to enter the country? Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland have made a political decision not to allow the Russian Sputnik V vaccine to be used for their citizens - will they allow travellers entry who have received this vaccine? Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic have authorised the Sputnik V vaccine from the Gamaleya Institute in Russia for their citizens, in response to the perceived slow rollout of EMA approved vaccines from the European Commission - will this be an accepted vaccine for the rest of the European Union member states? Similarly, Hungary and the Czech Republic have licensed the Chinese vaccines, Sinovac and Sinopharm, respectively…

“Of course, it is in the interests of governments of countries that depend on tourism for their economies and have been hardest hit by the devastating drop-off in leisure travel to promote whatever means are available to encourage inbound travel. Greece has led the drive in Europe and is lobbying the European Union to introduce legislation around ‘Vaccine Passports’ (VPs). Italy, Cyprus, Spain and Malta are supporting the Greeks - all are highly dependent on tourism revenue. Denmark is to introduce VPs this month and Sweden is soon to follow. However, the UK government has put on hold any decision on VPs, pending further discussion. The US has adopted a similar policy of further debate on the matter.

“So what’s the answer? There is undoubtedly a demand for a ‘Digital Immunity Document’ and this will simplify the process of: verification of inoculation; confirmation of positive COVID test within a time period of between 3 and 6 months; and COVID test notification. From an international travel point of view you could look at this as the equivalent of an airline’s app that enables you to store your boarding pass, airline membership card and flight details electronically. Some people use the electronic version but others continue with paper documentation and the process still functions.

“But let’s not forget that 3.4 billion people worldwide do not have internet access and over 1 billion people do not have a cellphone of any kind. Therefore, any such scheme will require close cooperation of governments in allowing access to an individual’s vaccination records.  And that, of course, brings up another issue – data privacy.

“There are two clear discussion points here: the first is the concept of an electronic means of verifying ‘immunity/infection status’ as opposed to a paper document; the other more complex discussion, that is often confused by the concerns around the ‘passport’ or ‘pass’, is what will governments, organisations and businesses choose to do with that information.  Will there be a requirement for vaccination for entry to a country/a restaurant/a gym/a music festival etc or will it form one of a layer of requirements that will determine what restrictions will be required on entry? This implies that there will be a need for ‘immunity security’ to prevent entry for the unvaccinated - is this really what the hospitality industry wants?

“My thought is that vaccination status should be one of the determinants of entry quarantine requirements, in combination with natural immunity and testing. The whole approach to prevention of COVID-19 transmission is dependent on layers of protection - it is not just about masking or physical distancing or even vaccination. No preventive measure is fully protective but each tool of prevention is layered on top of the next and together they form a stronger barrier.”

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How To Take Care Of Your Mental Health During The Global Pandemic

As the world continues to cope with the unprecedented impacts of the COVID 19, an increasing number of people will be directed to isolate themselves at home or practice social distancing.

These actions can cause negative psychological effects including anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion and anger. Dr. Adrian Hyzler, Chief Medical Officer at Healix International has put together some advice on how to tend to your mental wellness while navigating the new reality we have all found ourselves in.

Things you can start doing today to reduce anxiety

  • Maintain a routine: This is so important! Maintain a regular routine to mimic the structure that was previously provided by your work (or “normal”) life. This will go a long way in helping you to feel productive. Part of that routine should include showering and getting dressed; tempting though it may seem, don’t lounge around in your pyjamas all day!
  • Eat regular, healthy meals: Eating well will help maintain your physical and mental well-being. Whenever possible, make meals from fresh ingredients that you can buy locally.
  • Exercise: A fitness routine, whether it consists of a walk with the dog, skipping with a rope for 20 minutes in the garden or using any exercise equipment you might have at home, will serve as a distraction and help to boost your endorphins.
  • Stay entertained: Read books, write in a journal, listen to music; take the time to do things that you never had room for in your busy life.
  • Engage with others: Use video conferencing (FaceTime, Skype, Zoom) to stay connected with friends and family as well as work colleagues. In times like these, a phone call is better than a text!
  • Shut it down: Switch off social media for a few hours a day so that you are not constantly bombarded with terrible stories, haunting imagery and incessant memes that have you fatigued with the whole COVID-19 situation. This sounds extreme to some, but you might try deleting your social media app from your phone for the day! You’d be surprised how much better you’ll feel after a “digital detox.”
  • Know your sources: Select a small number of trustworthy media sources so that when you do search for news about COVID 19 you are not reading fake news, opinion pieces and viral threads that only increase your anxiety. Be careful what you share on social media; be aware that you could be contributing to others’ anxiety.
  • Break the 24/7 news cycle: Don’t check the news first thing in the morning! Set aside a short period each day to check news stories and let that be it.
  • Explore: While practicing social distancing (staying 6 feet apart at minimum) take note that society is still there! There are other people walking, jogging and riding bikes. You can maintain a safe distance from them while still offering a smile and a wave. There are many parks and areas that are open to the public so that people can exercise and get fresh air. 
  • Have some fun: Join online communities for an hour of Scrabble, Monopoly or other traditional games that can now be played online in order to get a sense of community.
  • Get enriched: Learn a new language or skill, maybe enrol in an online course.
  • Tackle your DIY List: Do those tasks you have been putting off forever, including household repairs and gardening.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help: If you do get anxious and need some professional help, access mental health professionals via helplines that are open 24 hours a day. Know that everyone will get anxious about this pandemic to some degree and it’s ok not to be ok!
  • Remember to breathe: It sounds pretty basic but take a deep breath whenever you start to feel overwhelmed. You may also want to try meditation apps as well as online yoga classes and wellbeing videos.
  • Be kind: This goes for yourself and those around you; check up on vulnerable neighbours and offer assistance as you’re able. Help with shopping for food and medications (drop things off at the door) or offer just conversation (maintaining social distancing of course).
  • Take space: If you are in a family, give each other breathing room!
  • Try and find some meaning:  Though it may seem impossible at times, try and learn from this experience. Focus on what matters the most to you and take some time to really bond with those you care about.

Healix International works with multi-national corporations, NGOs and governments around the world to provide medical, security and travel assistance and help fulfil duty of care obligations.

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