The debate over proof of vaccination as a requirement for entry dates back more than 120 years. The first time certificates of vaccines were required, health officials were fighting a plague pandemic.
In the 1890s, the Government of British India enacted a series of measures in an attempt to stop the spread of the plague, which included requiring travelers to prove they’d been vaccinated against the bacterial disease.
But colonized people living in India then saw government-mandated vaccine certificates as an invasive measure meant to curb travel and control citizens’ movements. Officials struggled to enforce the requirement as they were outnumbered by people traveling across the country.
Today’s concept of a vaccine “passport” isn’t much different: It’s proof of vaccination — either on paper or in digital form — that grants someone access or entry to venues, foreign countries and other locations. It’s meant to keep those who haven’t been vaccinated out of public areas where they could transmit the coronavirus — and reward people who’ve been vaccinated with a return to somewhat normal life.
The “Excelsior Pass” is New York’s digital pass that people can dowload to show proof of vaccination.
New York State
The US federal government won’t require vaccine passports or issue them, so the passports’ viability lies with the states.
If history is any indication, the adoption of vaccine passports won’t happen smoothly or all at once. They were difficult to enforce in the 1890s — and if more Americans and international citizens resist, the same could be true in 2021 and beyond.
Colonized people of India rejected vaccine passports
Haffkine eventually repeated the success of his anti-cholera vaccine with a vaccine for the plague, which he initially used to inoculate himself and incarcerated people in a Bombay jail, Najera said.
Dr. Waldemar Haffkine
From Wellcome Collection
Health officials would force plague patients out of their homes, often with the help of local police or the military, and burn down rat-infested buildings, since the rodents were known to spread the plague. Citizens were also required to carry vaccination certificates.
The measures taken by British officials led to civil unrest across the country, through work strikes and demonstrations that often turned violent. As a result, many colonized people began leaving crowded urban centers for homes in regions where the colonial government was less present.
The problem, Najera said, was that those citizens brought the plague with them.
Najera said the pilgrimages “were only part of the impetus for certificates of immunization.”
“It was just one of the many things the government tried to do to stop the mass exodus from cities with plague.”
Not that requiring certificates halted travel — the sheer number of people moving around India proved the control measures ineffective, Najera said.
“While certificates were required, the enforcement was lax or nearly impossible to do,” he said. “And, if it was done in a way that inhibited the movement of people who were already upset and escaping the plague epidemic in their own city, violence would erupt.”
One kind of vaccine passport still exists
It’s up to countries on how to enforce or proceed the WHO’s guidelines, Najera said.
The US adopted a piecemeal approach to the pandemic when it first began in March 2020, largely entrusting states to make their own guidelines on wearing masks, limiting the capacity of buildings and other ways of mitigating residents’ risk of Covid-19 transmission.
And if some states are already prohibiting the use of vaccine passports while others encourage it, the US could see imperfect enforcement, too.
CNN’s Theresa Waldrop contributed to this report.