‘Open Sesame’: vaccine passports are the key to Southeast Asia’s recovery

Pixabay rights-free image of Singapore skyline

Recently-released data makes clear the cost of coronavirus for Thailand, despite the Kingdom’s overall successful management of the pandemic: the no-show of some 40 million expected tourists in 2020 has caused the country’s worst economic downturn since the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Sadly, the Southeast Asian country is by no means the only one in the region to suffer a blow to its bottom line after border closures cut overseas arrivals to the Asia-Pacific by 84% in 2020.

Fortunately, the arrival of safe and effective vaccines against Covid-19 has offered a glimmer of hope. While some countries in the region are getting off to a faster start than others on their vaccine program, one common challenge is how the collapse of their lucrative tourist sectors is devastating their economies. The only way for ASEAN countries to open up borders again, whilst keeping coronavirus cases under control, will be the introduction of a vaccine passport that reliably proves who’s been inoculated.

Passport to freedom

The island country of Singapore represents a microcosm of what is happening in the region at large, since the government’s no holds barred reaction to the pandemic has barred foreigners and trapped locals. While this tiger economy has coped well compared to regional neighbors, its gross domestic product (GDP) nonetheless shrank by a record 5.8% in 2020. The tourism industry accounts for nearly 10% of all jobs in Singapore, which was the fifth-most visited city on the planet.

Tourists have not only stopped coming, but Singaporean residents have also stopped travelling. Although the low number of active coronavirus cases in the country mean that Singaporeans have access to museums, restaurants and shops at home, residents of the Lion City have also been confined to a space half the size of London for over a year now. Stringent border regulations mean that Singaporeans have been reduced to going to “cruises to nowhere” as substitutes for the weekend holidays to Bangkok or Hong Kong they frequently enjoyed before the pandemic. The island has even been dubbed the world’s most vacation-deprived country, as citizens highlighted their burning desire to explore the globe again in a recent poll.

Not only will Singaporeans be grateful once they’re able to see some unfamiliar scenery, but the return of generous Singaporean tourists will also be a much needed boost to regional neighbors who have sorely missed them.

Following Singapore’s signal

In fact, the economies of ASEAN countries who depend even more heavily on tourism have been decimated because of the precipitous drop in travel. Thailand’s 7.6% economic downturn due to lack of visitors has catalyzed a powerful protest movement calling for the resignation of premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha. In Vietnam, the news of a successful trial phase for the country’s homegrown vaccine has been overshadowed by a surge in cases which will further deplete both international and local tourism, already reduced by 79% throughout last year. In Indonesia, which has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Southeast Asia, hotels are struggling to reach half capacity and are selling a ‘pay now, stay later’ system. But ‘staycation’ packages in these countries will be insufficient to cover the colossal losses.

As Asia celebrates subdued Lunar New Year celebrations, the population will be hoping that the Year of the Ox will bring stability and renewed prosperity. Successful vaccine rollouts will play an essential role in bringing about a return to something more like normal life—but until a comprehensive system is put in place to prove who’s been inoculated and who hasn’t, the damage to tourism shows no signs of abating while the virus rages on.

One passport to save them all

Encouragingly, some innovative solutions are already taking shape and being tested in the region. A scheme called Certus myHealth Pass, developed by Swiss security expert SICPA, was trialled in Singapore and the Philippines among seafarers, one of the groups that has been profoundly affected by border closures and the patchwork of Covid regulations. The system, allowing for secure verification of Covid-19 test or vaccination status, has worked well in trials, earning the confidence of the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

The scheme works in real-time using a blockchain system to secure data on an individual’s Covid-19 test or vaccination status. This information is then made available by way of a QR code, so that no sensitive data is stored in any database but instead in a secure, easily accessible format to meet the needs of the inoculated, as well as those of medical staff and border controllers. Verification is also independent of the issuer of the test or vaccination document and does not require an internet connection. The pass is then made available on the web or through the mobile application – but can also be printed as a hard copy.

If the Certus pass can verify critical information for a group as diverse as the world’s seafarers, it could be the perfect fit for a region as dynamic as ASEAN. A unified vaccine passport infrastructure would help keep regional populations safe while giving health authorities capacity to lift border restrictions. Given the interconnectedness of Southeast Asian countries, a harmonized approach would prevent inconsistencies and streamline tourism—something which every country in the region needs to roll out in tandem with inoculations, in order to get the tourism sector off the ground as soon as possible.