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EU's Digital Vaccine Passports Raise Concerns Over Social Divisions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the vaccination rate in Europe starts to rise, many there are thinking about summer vacations. And the European Union wants those travelers to carry a digital vaccine passport, which will be launched July 1. But as Esme Nicholson reports, there are concerns the system could cause social divisions.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Customers (unintelligible) passenger bag (ph).

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Waiting to check in for a flight to Lisbon, 56-year-old Erik Darlitz flashes a red vaccine booklet he received as a child in Communist East Germany. He never dreamed this little booklet, embossed with socialist imagery, would afford him any freedom of movement. As an EU citizen, Darlitz doesn't need a passport to travel from Germany to Portugal, but he does now need proof of vaccination. And he's worried the Portuguese may not accept his vaccine record book issued by a country that no longer exists. Luckily, he's also carrying a negative test result.

ERIK DARLITZ: (Through interpreter) My wife and I are fully vaccinated, but we still had to take a PCR test, which frankly is a moneymaking scheme. So if an EU digital vaccine passport means we can travel more easily, I'm all for it.

NICHOLSON: Starting next month, European travel should get easier when the bloc launches its Digital COVID Certificate, which can be downloaded onto a smartphone or printed out on paper. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sees this as an important step towards restoring citizens' rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: With this digital certificate, we aim to help member states reinstate freedom of movement in a safe, responsible and trusted manner.

NICHOLSON: The document will be available to the fully vaccinated, those who've recently tested negative and those who've recovered from the virus. Holders will be able to bypass quarantine and testing requirements. As the certificate was being discussed, an early concern was privacy. But now the big concern is equality, says digital rights expert Chris Kover.

CHRIS KOVER: The bigger concerns right now are regarding discrimination. We are setting up a system where people who have had access to vaccines or access to tests have a lot of privileges as opposed to those who don't have that.

NICHOLSON: Kover says it's paramount that member states make testing affordable and accessible for all so as not to further entrench existing inequities. She also raises concerns about how the vaccine passports will be used within individual member states.

KOVER: For instance, to get into restaurants or into movie theaters. What will happen with children? What if they want to go to the movies? We've already seen how kids and teenagers were among those who've been most affected by all the restrictions. And are we really making sure that won't continue?

NICHOLSON: Back at the airport, 19-year-old Manal Boukrissa says bars and restaurants are already being picky about documentation. For fear of missing out, she's flying home to Budapest to get vaccinated.

MANAL BOUKRISSA: At first, I was against the vaccine thing. And so I have no choice if I want to, like, do whatever I want. I need to get vaccinated. We have no choice now.

NICHOLSON: Boukrissa may be disappointed, though, because the EU doesn't yet recognize the Russian and Chinese vaccines being administered in Hungary, a sign perhaps that the East-West divide is still as strong as it was back when East and West Germany issued separate vaccine passes. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "CAROUSEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.