Covid-19 immunity and vaccination certificates are being held up as golden tickets to the new normal.
Israel, the country leading the way on vaccination rates, has a green pass program to help its citizens return to public spaces such as gyms and theaters. The European Union and China have announced similar passports to revive travel. In the United States, the Biden administration is assessing the viability of vaccine certificates.
These efforts raise serious red flags. Vaccination certificates will likely deepen existing inequalities in health care, education, and employment. And the rush to a new normal via certificates sets the stage for function creep — a way of short-cutting public debates and considerations around surveillance and the use of personal data.
On the pro side of the certificate debate are pandemic-injured markets, access to education, mental health problems, and the overall sense of normality, making it paramount to reopen as fast as possible. On the con side are concerns that a hasty reopening sets the stage for a draconian future.
Triggering prosocial behaviors — the want to get vaccinated because it is internally satisfying to help society as a whole — is a better way to promote large-scale vaccination than vaccine certificates, which favor a select group of people who long to go on vacation, go back to the gym, and generally find their new normal.
As I and Eric McNulty, a colleague of mine at Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, wrote recently in the journal Politics and the Life Sciences, our path to the prosocial alternative is based on four challenges at different levels of society.
Challenge 1: governmental
The problem: Public officials need to invest in altruistic policies regardless of political risk.
The solution: Challenging times demand selfless leadership, not selfish political maneuvering and golden tickets. The Biden administration, for example, will need to ensure that steps in the American Rescue Plan, such as access to affordable child care, help with work and housing issues, protection against gender-based violence, and addressing America’s hunger crisis, turn into lasting social support, especially for the many Americans struggling to get vaccinated. The administration will also need to support those who refuse to be vaccinated — prosocial support is for all, even if their choices are contrary to those in the mainstream.
History, and voters, will undoubtedly remember how well Presidents Trump and Biden, along with their counterparts at all levels of government, handled this challenge.
Challenge 2: organizational
The problem: Employers, schools, and other organizations that shun uncertified people because they test positive or refuse vaccination is a punishment-based approach leading to resentment, polarization, and systemic discrimination.
The solution: With support from government, organizations need to promote vigilant testing or retesting and vaccination without discriminating against those who test positive or refuse vaccination. When society does reopen, it will be interesting to see how organizations guarantee access — or withhold it — to necessities such as education and work. Organizations need to offer extended support and security, such as financial support and job security, for individuals who test positive for Covid-19 or those who choose not to be vaccinated. A simple statement such as “We’ll guarantee your job and pay you if you have to quarantine” can make all the difference. Research shows that trust in reciprocity leads to satisfied people who generate comparatively more value for their organizations.
Challenge 3: interpersonal
The problem: The anti-vaccination protests occurring around the world as well as the sizable online anti-vax movement suggest that certificates will throw fuel on these fires. Advancing hard and fast certificates will only reinforce and potentially grow these large networks.
The solution: This situation requires a softer approach using the psychological concepts of compassion and empathy. Throughout social networks, the concerns of others must be acknowledged and respected, prosocial bonds of support must be built (regardless of personal beliefs), and people must be allowed to change their minds if or when they are ready. The outcome is a diffusion of tension in society and a sense of common ground, which decreases frustration and extremism while increasing vaccination uptake. Prosocial change, simply put, is a two-way street paved with patience.
Challenge 4: intrapersonal
The problem: The intrapersonal level is how well individuals handle what life throws at them. The key here is limiting the level of fear people internalize. Fearing a job loss for testing positive or deciding not to be vaccinated, for instance, is a breeding ground for extreme views and counterproductive behavior. This fear stems from things out of our control, such as governmental and organizational policies.
The solution: One way to avoid the damaging effects of fear is by internalizing a sense of power over the things one can control, such as getting tested or retested, or vaccinated. It is important to establish a sense of personal power and control because it increases civic engagement. This sense of power and control can be used to advance a pro-vaccine message in at least three ways: by connecting people to prosocial grassroots movements; by encouraging unions, nongovernmental organizations, and other advocates to promote trust and reciprocity in society’s organizations; and by demanding selfless leadership from politicians.
Pandemics need real solutions, not fictional tickets
If society wants a relatively smooth vaccination process, then the response needs to incorporate fundamental social psychological factors.
Governments need to create stakeholder-oriented structures supporting all members of society, not just those with access to the golden tickets of vaccine certification. At the organizational level, prosocial institutions must use trust and reciprocity to promote vaccinations rather than stopgap certificates, which can lead to resentment, polarization, and systemic discrimination. We also need to treat each other with more compassion and empathy, even those with opposing beliefs. Finally, we need to focus on outcomes we can exercise power and control over, like getting tested or retested for Covid-19, wearing personal protective equipment like masks where appropriate, practicing physical distancing, and getting vaccinated to play our parts in helping society recover.
Overcoming these four interconnected challenges opens the chocolate factory to everyone, not just the select few with golden tickets. In the Roald Dahl novel, golden tickets were merely an invite to the chocolate factory — not guaranteed prosperity — and the visit ended badly for all but one of the ticket holders.
The new normal is far more complex, of course, than a chocolate factory. The pandemic is a vast systemic problem, but one with controllable outcomes. Hoping for a quick fix with vaccine certifications is not a solution. An effective response that intrinsically motivates people at all levels of society toward a common, prosocial goal is.
Brian R. Spisak is a research associate at Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, a joint program of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.