- Wealthier countries such as Singapore and Malaysia are likely to lead in the use of digital vaccine passports.
- Ideological issues will not hinder policy at the outset, and neither will privacy concerns unless there are egregious loopholes in both the technology and implementation.
- Problems could manifest in lower-income countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, where the development and effective use of digital vaccine passport systems could be constrained by their limited capabilities, uneven internet access, and low digitization. Resort will likely be made in these countries to hybrid systems.
Last week, Singapore became the most vaccinated country globally, with more than 80% of its population having received at least one dose. Meanwhile, after a slow start, vaccination rates have accelerated significantly in Malaysia and Thailand over the past two months. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are still constrained by vaccine supplies and their large populations. However, even in these trailing countries, much of the available supply is being redirected to their capital regions and main industrial zones in the hope of achieving some form of community bubble and reducing the economic risks from the pandemic.
With the increased vaccination rates, countries throughout the region — even the ones with only moderate levels — are likely to consider soon rules that would require vaccine passports for accessing travel and indoor venues as well as participation in large-scale outdoor activities. Singapore already has these requirements, and so do Indonesia and Malaysia but with more limited application. Public resistance in the region to expanding these policies is unlikely to be significant, even if they are used as explicit tools to encourage vaccination and protect the gains in specific geographic areas or communities with high vaccination rates. There has never been widespread rejection of contact tracing in Southeast Asia.
However, while governments could roll out policies relatively quickly, the effective rate of adoption and use of vaccine passports will be uneven — which could affect the risk reduction and economic recovery benefits from the passports. In the worst case, should digital vaccine passports become too unwieldy, inconsistent, or exclusionary in the larger countries, then public and commercial resistance could grow, resulting in their inefficient use as paper-based workarounds are implemented.
The impediment to effective implementation of digital vaccine passports in the near term is unlikely to be ideology, but more practical factors such as income (which correlates with smartphone use and ability to pay for internet connectivity), the existing internet and digital infrastructure, the public sector's level of digitization (which reflects the capacity of the government to effectively use the data from the vaccine passports for their own policies). Privacy vulnerabilities in the apps or the government systems that warehouse the data could also generate some resistance.
For instance, in the Philippines, the Health Secretary last week admitted that the government has never used the data from its official Stay Safe app for any contact tracing. Also, the airport authority uses a different app, Traze, which is not interoperable with the national one, so crucial data that could connect travel-related infections and general community transmission are not linked. Frustration with the seemingly useless app system could make the Philippine public reluctant to accept digital vaccination requirements without resort to a paper backup. In Thailand, the Mor Prom app for vaccine registration has had problems ranging from periodic unavailability to ad-hoc and flip-flopping rules on whether it would be needed for vaccinations, but the higher digitization rate overall make these issues surmountable.
Consequently, most digital passport programs that could be implemented over the next year will be most effective in the smaller countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, and in the larger countries' more urbanized areas where local governments could supplement the limited national capabilities. Transportation hubs, tourism, offices, and retail could also be common use cases in even the less-vaccinated countries, especially with reopening plans possibly accelerating in the fourth quarter. Should the pandemic persist, and Singapore and Malaysia prove that digital vaccine passports are effective in reducing transmission as well as allowing for better management of booster shots or contact tracing, then pressure could increase on the larger countries to invest more in the digitalization of their Covid-related technology infrastructure.