Among the various terms we’ve had to learn since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, “Immunity Passport” is the most Orwellian. Assuming there is a reliable serological test for antibodies in the blood — and that they provide immunity — what brave new world would this passport let us into?
Just last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that immunity passports “might actually have some merit.” Although experts mention “front-line workers” such as nurses and doctors as those who would have one, they are equally being touted as a way to identify who can be sent back to work in the broader economy
It might be possible to rejigger a manufacturing line, for example, so that widgets can be made with only the even numbered workers between 2 and 10. Yet, as Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau noted few weeks ago, immunity passports raise more than an economic questions: “We are reflecting on the social implications of such a decision.”
If the period between when the passports are issued and a vaccine or treatment is found in six months to a year, likely most of those who can work would only grouse about doing more than their share. Still, there remains a public health threat as some people would expose themselves to coronavirus in hopes of catching it, recovering and then being free to go back to work and get a haircut.
As the months drag on with no end in sight, immunity passports run the risk of undermining the structure of the social contract and, indeed, what it means to be human. While slavery and denial of the vote to women show that the nation’s founders did not live up to the full meaning of their Judeo-Christian credo, the belief that each man was created “in the image of God” undergirded the founders’ belief in the dignity of humanity. The 19th century abolitionists and women’s rights advocates, and 20th century civil rights leaders appealed to this same tradition to expand American liberty.
If history is any guide, as was the case after the Black Death (1347-1351), workers who hold immunity passports will see their wages will go up, just as they have for our newly discovered essential workers: hospital cleaning staff and those who stock supermarket shelves. While no doubt deserved, simply adding sums to one end of the cash nexus does nothing to get around what the philosopher Immanuel Kant identified about the inherent dignity of each individual. Kant showed that individuals cannot ethically be viewed a mere means to an end — even in a pandemic; rather, they are ends in themselves.
We don’t, however, have to break out our musty Philosophy 101 texts to consider the Orwellian possibilities. Two episodes from the original Star Trek series can help us.
As months drag on, greater pay may not be enough to keep the workers’ better angels from alighting. At that point, the workers (perhaps egged on by populist rhetoric) could begin to see themselves as a permanent biological elite. “Since we work and only eat,” a stark form of the argument might run, “we deserve two votes for every one of yours.”
“The Space Seed,” which stared Ricardo Montalbán as Kahn Noonien Singh, pivots on just such a possibility. The eugenically “improved” men and women Captain Kirk’s crew discover in suspended animation on the centuries-old ship SS Botany Bay were exiled from Earth after being defeated in the Eugenic Wars of the 1990s. The re-animated, Kahn, echoing Hitler, bemoans “how little improvement there has been in human evolution” and boasts of having “offered the world order” as he takes control of the USS Enterprise with the intent of conquering the galaxy.
The lesson is not that Kahn is defeated again. Rather, the danger the episode elucidates is found in the words the writers gave Kahn to signal his acceptance of being marooned on a planet. Borrowing from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the once and future dictator says, “It is better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
Equally appropriate is the “The Cloud Minders,” though not because the Enterprise’s mission, transporting the rare mineral zenite from Ardana to another planet where it will end a botanical plague, cuts close to the quick. The mine Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock beam into to pick up the zenite is part of a profoundly bifurcated society. Only the timely arrival of High Advisor Plasus and a security detail prevent the troglodyte miners, who have hidden the zenite, from taking the two Federation officers captive. As Plasus’s men search for the zenite, Kirk and Spock are brought to the cloud city of Stratus, which, they soon discover, seems like an interstellar version of Plato’s 5th Century B.C. Athens.
While perhaps more meaningful to us today than in February of 1969 when the episode first aired, the story’s dénouement, Dr. McCoy’s invention of a gas mask that filters out the intellectually debilitating effects of zenite gas, is not the pivot of this morality play. For in reality, Stratus is later-day Sparta, where the well-born do not just command the miners, but treat them as drones. And, because of their brutalized status, the miners accept that they are nothing more than means to the Stratus dwellers’ ends.
The new test that the University of San Diego’s Centre for Advanced Laboratory Medicine uses has been verified to identify infected individuals by using a magnetic bead coated with a viral antigen to which the antibodies stick. While an important step, this and other verified tests tell us only that someone has been exposed to or has had COVID-19. As the WHO reported on 25 April, there is no evidence that the presence of antibodies confers immunity.
According to UC San Diego’s Dr. Robert L. Fitzgerald, there is no test that can prove immunity. Only re-exposure can demonstrate immunity, which means that even before immunity passports could be issued, we would have willingly expose individuals to a potentially deadly illness for which there is no treatment.
With the state of our knowledge now, immunity passports could very well be stamped by Charron the boatman at the River Styx before a trip to Hades.
Nathan M. Greenfield is a Brooklyn-born author who taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa and has written extensively on U.S. and Canadian history.