On the same day as the OECD meeting, the governments of 21 African countries quietly embraced a vaccine passport system, which will apparently link up with other global systems.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) will promote the unification of the different COVID passport systems in the world, said Spain’s Minister of Tourism and Industry, Reyes Maroto, at a gathering of OECD governments in Ibiza on Friday (Jan 8). Thirty-six countries, as well as international organizations, participated in the event, which was aimed at creating a multilateral framework for establishing a global vaccine passport regime. Such a step is necessary, said Maroto, in order to prevent “distrust and confusion” among international travellers.
Private Partnerships Leading the Way
As I reported in early March, in the article Are Vaccine Passports About to Go Totally Global?, an assortment of private partnerships are working behind the scenes to harmonize vaccine passport standards and systems at a global level. They include the Vaccine Credentials Initiative (VCI™), with backing from the U.S. government contractor MITRE Corporation, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Oracle, Sales Force and Mayo Clinic; the Commons Project Foundation (the World Economic Forum and Rockefeller Foundation) and the Good Health Pass Collaborative (Mastercard, IBM, Grameen Foundation and the International Chamber of Commerce).
After publicly opposing vaccine passports for more than a year, the World Health Organization also appears poised to lend its endorsement. In February, T-Systems, the IT services arm of Deutsche Telekom, announced in a press release that it had been chosen by WHO as an “industry partner” in the introduction of digital vaccine passports. The e-documents will be a standard procedure not only for COVID-19 vaccines but also “other vaccinations such as polio or yellow fever” as well as presumably other vaccines that come on line in the future. T-Systems already has experience in this area, having helped to make the vaccine passport systems in Europe interoperable.
The Indonesian presidency of the G-20 is also conducting “pilot projects” to make the different vaccine passport systems being used around the world interoperable, Moroto told participants at the OECD meeting. The work is scheduled to be finished by the G-20 Leaders’ Summit in November in Kuala Lumpur, where the measures are expected to receive the necessary political backing.
Such a statement raises a number of questions. How many countries outside of the West’s rapidly diminishing sphere of influence will be willing to go along with a plan hatched largely by governments in the West to control global travel? Moscow, for starters, is unlikely to sign up. Just last week the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov walked out of a G20 meeting after Russia was accused of exacerbating the global food crisis. What about China, which NATO recently declared a security challenge for the first time?
More important still, what is the point of creating a global vaccine passport regime when, as we have seen over the past year, said passports offer zero hope of controlling the spread of the COVID-19 virus, because the vaccines themselves are non-sterilizing? In fact, there is growing evidence that vaccine passports may actually be exacerbating rather than reducing transmission of the virus, by propagating a false sense of security among vaccinated people leading many of them to let down their guard. Despite all this, Africa, the least vaccinated continent on the planet, is also embracing vaccine passports.
A “New Health Order” in Africa
Last Friday was Africa Integration Day, which is meant to encourage the free flow of people, goods and services, and financial capital across African national borders. To mark the occasion, the Africa Centers for Disease Control together with the African Union (AU) launched a vaccine passport for all AU countries. The passport will be in digital format. As with similar documents launched in the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and a host of other jurisdictions, it will include a QR code that can be scanned to show proof that the holder has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and to display PCR results.
African heads of state and global health leaders present at the event said the virtual document and the e-health backbone will form part of Africa’s “new health order.” To get the ball rolling, 21 of the continent’s 54 countries have agreed to start using the passport.
Africa CDC was set up by the African Union (AU) in 2017, presumably mainly with funds from rich donor countries in the West — approximately 75% of the AU’s budget comes from external partners, particularly the European Union (EU) and individual European states. The AU says the vaccine passport will help to promote “harmonized, standardized and coordinated entry and exit for travellers in African Union Member States through digital solutions.”
It will also presumably mean that unvaccinated Africans will no longer be able to travel to or from the 21 participating countries — this on a continent where the vaccinated cohort represents just 19% of the population, according to Africa CDC. Acting head of Africa CDC, Ahmed Ogwell, said the vaccine passport will soon broaden its application to include other vaccines such as the Yellow Fever vaccine. He also said Africa CDC was holding talks to link the passport to other global systems.
An AU-wide vaccine passport has been in the works for some time:
- In October 2020 the Africa CDC launched the “Saving Lives, Economies and Livelihoods” campaign to unify travel restrictions and support affected economies.
- In January 2021, Kenya became the first African Union Member state to implement the Trusted Travel Platform. Its government has since made the system mandatory for all outbound and inbound travel.
- Ethiopia swiftly followed suit, outlawing the use of paper test results. Only travelers with the AU Trusted Travel app would be allowed to enter Ethiopia.
- Soon after that, Zimbabwe started using the app as did strategic airline partners Ethiopian Airlines, EgyptAir, and Kenya Airways. In October 2021 Togo did the same. As GAVI, the vaccine alliance, reported at the time, “Togo is blazing a digital trail on the continent, looking to online tools, including digital vaccine passports, to curtail COVID-19” .
- In late October, Morocco also introduced a mandatory vaccine passport for indoor activities and domestic and international travel, sparking protests across the country.
The Real Agenda
Now, almost half of Africa’s 54 countries are doing the same. But to what end? As I mentioned earlier, a vaccine passport system offers little to no hope of controlling transmission of the virus for the simple reason that the associated vaccines offer scant if any protection from transmission. As has become increasingly clear, vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, once infected, transmit to others at similar rates.
Perhaps there is another agenda at play. Interestingly, when Togo inaugurated its vaccine passport system, its Minister of Digital Economy and Transformation announced that the move was not just about public health; it was about furthering the digitization of the country’s entire economy:
“The issuance of the COVID-19 vaccine passport contributes to the achievement of the objectives of the government’s roadmap, which aims at the digitalisation of all the country’s economic sectors. Following the example of Asian countries and the European Union, this forgery-proof and verifiable passport is a proof of vaccination that will facilitate the movement of our vaccinated citizens in the territory and abroad.”
As I argue in my book, Scanned: Why Vaccine Passports and Digital Identity Will Mean the End of Privacy and Freedom, the implementation of vaccine passports is facilitating the establishment of digital identity infrastructure around the world. It is the proverbial foot in the door for digital ID platforms, which in turn are necessary to install central bank digital currencies. Don’t take my word for it; according to the French defense contractor Thales, which has been involved in the creation of vaccine passport and digital ID platforms both in Europe and beyond, vaccine passports are a “precursor to digital ID wallets.”
The CEO of iProove, a biometric ID company and Homeland Security contractor, had a similar message: “The evolution of vaccine certificates will actually drive the whole field of digital ID in the future. So, therefore, this is not just about Covid, this is about something even bigger.”
Coincidentally, the company that designed the application to access the Africa CDC Travel Pass is a Johannesburg-based digital payments provider called Cassava Fintech, which itself is a subsidiary of one of Africa’s largest homegrown telecoms companies, Econet. In fact, Africa CDC’s Travel Pass application is merely an extension of Cassava’s Sasai Global app, which the company describes as Africa’s first “global super app”.
Cassava has just entered a strategic partnership with US credit card giant Mastercard, with the ostensible purpose of “advanc[ing] digital inclusion across Africa and collaborat[ing] on a range of initiatives including expansion of the Africa CDC TravelPass”:
Mastercard is partnering with Cassava Fintech to enhance the security of TravelPass through Mastercard’s Community Pass platform. Mastercard Community Pass is an interoperable digital platform facilitating service delivery for marginalised individuals and communities, including access to critical health services like patient care plan tracking for Covid-19.
The joint initiative between Mastercard and Cassava Fintech seeks to offer a unified solution with greater convenience and enhanced security, that is expected to promote safe cross border travel in Africa in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The partnership will also allow the two organizations to explore collaboration such as the further integration of the Community Pass with Cassava Fintech’s mobile and financial services, acquiring and processing of card payments across the continent, along with the introduction of a virtual or physical card on the Sasai SuperApp.
Mastercard is already playing a leading role in biometric-enabled digital identity programs across Africa. It provides funding for the World Bank’s Identity for Development (ID4D) Program, which the New York School of Law’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) recently warned could pave the way to a “digital road to hell”. In October last year, Mastercard unveiled a joint initiative with fintech partner Paycode to onboard the biometrics of 30 million individuals from remote areas of Africa to provide them with digital identities and bank accounts through smartcards.
It is common practice for Western companies, NGOs and supranational institutions to pilot biometric ID and payment systems in the poorer, less developed parts of the world before unleashing them on more mature markets. As I reported for NC in May, Mastercard is looking to launch a “biometric checkout program” in the UK, called “Smile to Pay”, but only after trialing it in Brazil, the Middle East and Asia.
Another interesting feature of Cassava Fintech is its Founding CEO, Strive Masiyiwa, an extremely well connected business executive who was originally from Zimbabwe but has been based in London since 2000. In June 2020, Masiyiwa was appointed by the African Union as a Special Envoy for Covid-19. His responsibilities before stepping down in February 2022 included coordinating the acquisition of medical supplies, therapeutics, and vaccines for Africa on a global basis.
Besides overseeing Econet and its subsidiaries, Masiyiwa sits on the board of a number of international boards including (quelle surprise!) the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Unilever Plc, Netflix, National Geographic Society, as well as the Global Advisory boards of Bank of America, the Council on Foreign Relations (USA), the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, and the Prince of Wales Trust for Africa. He was also a board member of the Rockefeller Foundation for 15 years.
Masiyiwa’s ties with the Gates Foundation date back even longer than that. Together with Kofi Annan, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Gates Foundation, Masiyima was a co-founder of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, becoming its chairman after Annan stepped down from the role. The program, which seeks to replace traditional seeds and farming practices in 13 African countries with chemical fertilizers and commercial seeds, has been an unmitigated disaster, even by its own metrics.
The group has raised over $1 billion – with two-thirds coming from the Gates Foundation, which holds investments in GMO giant Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) – on promises it would “double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households by 2020. That didn’t happen. In fact, those goals were quietly deleted from the AGRA website in June 2020 after an independent assessment by Tufts University found scant evidence of progress.
In 2021, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa — the largest civil society organization on the continent, representing (in the words of Tim Wise, the author of the Tufts report) “food producers largely, not just farmers but fisher-folk, pastoralists, and others” — released an open letter arguing that the Green Revolution had failed Africa. In the statement, AFSA demanded that donors of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa stop funding the AGRA initiative:
After nearly 15 years spending more than $1 billion to promote the use of commercial seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides in 13 African countries and an additional $1 billion per year of African government subsidies for seeds and fertilizers, AGRA has failed to provide evidence that yields, incomes or food security increased significantly and sustainably, for small holder households across its target countries.
Like AGRA, the Africa CDC’s vaccine passport program is also likely to be an unmitigated failure, at least when it comes to reducing the spread of COVID. In fact, by encouraging vaccinated people to travel like it was 2019, it will arguably foment the spread of COVID-19 in a region that has been largely spared the worst of its ravaging effects.
In early 2022, many public health officials acknowledged the inefficacy of vaccine passports. Jonay Ojeda, spokesperson for the Spanish Society of Public Health and Healthcare Administration, told the Spanish daily El Mundo in February: “Scientific evidence tells us that the COVID passport has had very little or no effectiveness in reducing infections, especially with the omicron variant,” adding that the vaccine passport is more of a “gimmick than an effective” tool.
As I noted at the time, it is a lot more than just a gimmick. In many countries the implementation of vaccine passport systems has radically reconfigured the way society functions, making life all but impossible for a large minority of the population. It has unleashed unprecedented levels of segregation and discrimination while hugely exacerbating divisions within society. Vaccine mandates have also reduced the capacity of healthcare systems while eroding trust in regulatory bodies, key principles of public health ethics, and vaccines themselves.
If vaccine passport systems are made a permanent feature of the global legal landscape, it will presumably mean that anyone who is not up to date with their vaccine schedule will not be able to cross international borders in the future. And that would essentially mean the end of two fundamental ethical principles underpinning modern medicine: bodily autonomy (the right to make decisions over one’s own life and future); and bodily integrity (the right to self-ownership and self-determination over one’s own body). In other words, if we ever want to travel again we will no longer have any say over what goes inside out body.
All this for the sake of non-sterilizing vaccines that offer very little protection against transmission or infection of COVID-19 and whose safety profile is looking increasingly suspect.