Home Health How US history explains vaccine passport scepticism

How US history explains vaccine passport scepticism

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As the pace of vaccination accelerates, governments, corporations and schools have signalled support for so-called vaccine passports – standardised proof of inoculation.

But in the US, the idea has been met with swift resistance.

“The government is not now nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday.

While mask mandates quickly became fodder for the culture wars, there’s resistance to vaccine passports from all sides. Conservative leaders say they will resist any movement toward a vaccine pass, arguing it’s an infringement of individual freedoms.

Some progressives, too, have raised concerns, saying vaccine passport schemes are likely to exacerbate existing inequality.

Experts say the resistance is a product of America’s peculiar public health history.

“This is not a country that has necessarily deep heritage belief in government or in science,” said David Rosner, a socio-medical sciences professor at Columbia University. “The idea of having ID cards or green passes here, I think it’s going to create another giant political crisis.”

Health hierarchy in the Deep South

Two centuries before the coronavirus reached the US, yellow fever ravaged America’s Deep South – states like Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.

In New Orleans – then the region’s social and cultural hub – the mosquito-borne virus was a near-constant source of fear. Between 1800 and 1860, the city experienced 22 epidemics, killing some 150,000 people.

“This was a petrifying disease,” said Kathryn Meyer Olivarius, a professor of history at Stanford University who specialises in 19th century America.

It was made worse because the disease was so misunderstood.

“There was no cure, there was no inoculation, they did not understand that it was bred by mosquitoes,” Prof Olivarius said.

Over time, it became clear that surviving yellow fever meant immunity from future infection.

Within a society that enslaved thousands of people at the time, another hierarchy emerged.

White residents who had developed immunity – who had “acclimated” – sat at the top, while those who hadn’t were denied jobs and life insurance.

“Fathers would not let their daughters marry unacclimated men,” Prof Olivarius said.

In a crude attempt at certifying immunity, residents were quizzed by employers and landlords about their history with yellow fever, which epidemic they were in, and who had witnessed their illness.

People became so desperate for immunity they deliberately sought infection – some even injecting themselves with the “black blood” of infected peers – while staring down a 50% survival rate.

For the enslaved, a racist and false theory that black people were born immune to yellow fever was used to justify slave labour.

“Human beings manipulated the disease to basically double down on these existing inequalities in society,” Prof Olivarius said.

In absence of science, survival became a signal for individual virtue.

Morality was “engrafted onto this disease that they did not understand very well”, Prof Olivarius said, a pattern that has endured.

“There’s something that feels very American about it: my health is a statement of who I am.”