Once you’re vaccinated you’re highly protected against the harms of Covid-19. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are incredibly effective against symptomatic Covid, though efficacy may be lower against some of the variants such as the South African and Brazilian mutations. More importantly though the vaccines are even more effective against severe Covid and hospitalization – even against the variants and are even being shown to prevent asymptomatic cases and thus transmission. For many of those that have been vaccinated it’s safe to travel.
But what if it’s immoral to travel even though it’s safe? An epidemiology professor argues one reason that the CDC hasn’t changed its guidance to allow vaccinated people to travel is it’s inequitable, it creates haves (vaccinated) and have nots (unvaccinated) and that’s morally wrong. In other words, you shouldn’t take advantage of being vaccinated because you’re privileging yourself over others,
With 26% of the population at least partially vaccinated, the temptation to return to pre-pandemic life is high. The problem is that — while laudable — that percentage is still not enough to safely reopen, says Charlotte Baker, assistant professor of epidemiology at Virginia Tech.
And putting the CDC in the position of giving some people the green light to travel when not everyone has had the opportunity to get vaccinated, she says, poses some thorny ethical issues. “Then you get into vaccine passports and the haves and have-nots of who can travel.”
I don’t find this persuasive as a reason why the CDC hasn’t revised its guidelines, because we know that the CDC tried to revise its travel guidelines and was prevented from doing so by the Biden administration.
I also don’t find it persuasive as a matter of ethics. Since in the United States every adult will be given access to a free vaccine, showing people taking advantage of a return to normal once they’ve been vaccinated serves as a demonstration incentive for vaccination. Sure, the unvaccinated may be jealous, but that’s also why they will get vaccinated.
Telling people that they cannot live more normal lives once they’ve been vaccinated, on the other hand, is the single worst sales pitch for vaccines. In the next couple of months there’s going to be more vaccine than people looking for a shot in the U.S. We’re going to need to go to lengths to find people to vaccinate, and encourage people to get vaccinated. A regime where those who have been vaccinated are able to do more than those who cannot is part of that encouragement.
There’s no question the Covid-19 pandemic itself has been inequitable. It hasn’t treated people equally. The most at-risk have been elderly, though of course there are gender and race differences as well. Vaccine availability has been targeted from the outset towards those at greatest risk, though admittedly in imperfect fashion. Should the elderly have to wait to travel until young people have a chance for a shot out of solidarity, when they have less time left to travel?
The greatest inequities are global. The U.S. will have enough vaccine for all adults in the coming months, while most of the world won’t have access to vaccine supply this year. Should U.S. air travel have to wait for world vaccination? If there’s a moral imperative it’s in helping the world scale up vaccine supply, not waiting to travel. It’s deplorable that the U.S. has been stockpiling doses of AstraZeneca in warehouses without approving the drug for use, though it will now release a small mount to Canada and Mexico.
By the way this focus on (a particular sort of) ethics rather than risk is one reason that the epidemiology profession has fallen so far in public esteem over the past year. This argument isn’t about science and public health, but morality. Remember sounding alarms over lockdown protests, that they were going to spread the virus, while saying that anti-police protests were justified? I happen to think those protests were important, but that’s a value judgment not a science judgment. And the CDC should be informing the public about science and risk.