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The "Exit Visa out of our Nightmare?" Covid Passport Edition

The "Exit Visa out of our Nightmare?" Covid Passport Edition
By Weekly Focus by n-ost • Issue #1 • View online
Hi and welcome to the first official issue of the Weekly Focus!
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Consumed by constant updates of our countries’ lockdown measures, death tolls and races to vaccinate, it’s been easy to adopt single-country tunnel vision and forget how events in Europe traverse national borders. The “Digital Green Certificate,” (DGC) proposed in mid-March, is the European Commission’s attempt to literally bring us together again.
By providing a more coordinated framework for the commonly called Covid-19 “passports” that are already popping up in member states like Denmark, it aims to make free movement within the EU easier again. Even though the underlying idea of vaccine passes and the Commission’s plan may be the right step towards some sense of normalcy, they also raise several concerns.
Picture this, for example: Low-cost airlines flying students to their #getaway weekends, cross-border trains all booked up with business travellers, bus tour groups heading for the Adriatic coast – but only those with vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and those who can afford to pay for tests or benefit from well-funded healthcare systems. The reality for some people living in Riga, Athens or Tirana may look very different, as the contributions of our authors show. 
And what about our digital privacy rights? How can vaccine certificates be implemented safely on a coordinated European level and what can we learn from Estonia, Europe’s highly praised digital wonder child?
Sure, Europe needs solutions now. But is it too early to start worrying that we may create a new form of the Iron Curtain? Or rather, multiple curtains, dividing Europe and its citizens into countless data points with different privileges and freedoms of movement?
Christian-Zsolt Varga & Lucy Papachristou, this week’s coordinating editors
This week's author team: Leonid Ragozin (Riga), Amalie Klitgaard (Copenhagen), Fatjona Mejdini (Tirana), Tassos Morfis (Athens), Holger Roonemaa (Tallinn).
This week's author team: Leonid Ragozin (Riga), Amalie Klitgaard (Copenhagen), Fatjona Mejdini (Tirana), Tassos Morfis (Athens), Holger Roonemaa (Tallinn).
🇱🇻🇷🇺 Opinion: The politically incorrect vaccine
A Russian passport (right) has never been known to easily open the EU’s doors for its holders. Will the Sputnik certificate (left) share the same destiny? Photo: Leonid Ragozin.
A Russian passport (right) has never been known to easily open the EU’s doors for its holders. Will the Sputnik certificate (left) share the same destiny? Photo: Leonid Ragozin.
As billions of people around the world are awaiting Covid vaccination, I am eyeing the prospect of getting vaxxed for the second time. Not as in getting the second jab – done that already – but being inoculated with a different vaccine on top of the current one, which in my case is Sputnik V. This may become the only course of action (with health risks that I have yet to comprehend) if the EU proceeds to introduce Covid passports, while not recognising Sputnik. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is currently processing the application for Sputnik’s certification, but there were a few ominous signs, like the agency’s chief comparing the vaccine to Russian roulette.
You see, I am a Russian national living in the EU, and as a journalist, I must travel for a living. I got Sputnik-ed back in winter in Moscow because it felt like the responsible thing to do with regard to myself and my near and dear ones. Many EU-based Russian nationals have done the same, and now we are nervously observing the increasing politicization of Sputnik’s certification process.
My experience is just a grotesque example of a broader issue. Millions of Russians travel to the EU for seaside or skiing holidays each year. Okay, Russia has a horrible political regime that deserves to be punished for its actions in Ukraine and at home, which is why various forces in the EU are campaigning against Sputnik. Serious publications are framing Russia’s vaccine diplomacy as a secret plot to undermine the West.
The emerging possibility is that the Russian vaccine, which appears to be as good as any, could be derailed on ethical grounds, due to allegations that servicemen and public sector workers had been forced to take part in the tests.
But does it mean that all Russian citizens, including opponents of the regime and victims of the allegedly unethical testing, deserve collective punishment? How about the three million Ukrainian nationals living in Russia? Or the citizens of Belarus, who rose up against Lukashenko’s regime last year? Finally, why undermine struggling economies in the EU’s Mediterranean which vitally depend on tourism?
Something to consider before making rash decisions.
Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe. As a Lonely Planet author and passionate traveller he hopes to be allowed to travel to Greece in the summer.
Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe. As a Lonely Planet author and passionate traveller he hopes to be allowed to travel to Greece in the summer.
🇩🇰 Number of the week: 30,000
30,000 people booked a restaurant table in the first 48 hours after the Danish “coronapas” scheme was introduced, according to DinnerBooking, a reservation system for restaurants in Denmark. The number has now climbed to 200.000 as Danes rush to secure a seat at the biggest feast and bear-chugging banquet after nearly four months’ closure of non-essential businesses.
Denmark is among the first EU-countries to launch vaccine passports, available for individuals who have been fully vaccinated, tested negative in the previous 72 hours or recently recovered. It’s required to access restaurants, hairdressers, museums, as well as other services and venues.
Although the corona pass aims to reopen society, it has inadvertently put a strain on small businesses, such as the gourmet restaurant Vår in Odense. The owner and his restaurant association criticizes the system for further damaging the income of restaurants already hit with multiple restrictions:
“If a client gets a positive Covid result and cancels, we are left with groceries and cannot fill out the tables. This is pretty hopeless for us,” explains Vår’s owner, Jacob Burmølle-Jensen.
The responsibility of checking customers’ corona pass creates problems too. The family business Ølgod Fitness cannot afford an extra employee and must cut down on profitable training classes to perform control. Failure to do so could incur a minimum fine of 400 euros.
“It is unreasonable. Many clients have cancelled, because they can’t be tested before every fitness trip or because our control feels too transgressive,” says owner Kim Klejnstrup Mikkelsen.
The Danish Ethical Council has criticized the Covid passport system, saying it’s concerned that customers will be required to display their personal health data to retail workers and other employees. 
Lastly, the Council worries that a vaccination passport may create an A- and B-team in the population, since not all can or want to be vaccinated. The corona pass might be viewed as indirect coercion to get vaccinated, which in Denmark should be done out of free will.
Amalie Klitgaard is a freelance multimedia journalist covering international and social issues in Spain, Denmark, Zimbabwe and China.
Amalie Klitgaard is a freelance multimedia journalist covering international and social issues in Spain, Denmark, Zimbabwe and China.
Analysis: Western Balkans – Locked away in the outskirts?
An elderly woman gets vaccinated in Shkoder, Albania, on 1 April 2021. Photo: Government of Albania
An elderly woman gets vaccinated in Shkoder, Albania, on 1 April 2021. Photo: Government of Albania
In the coming months, as vaccinations in Europe improve and life slowly returns to a state of semi-normalcy, people from the Western Balkans, which some call the outskirts of the EU – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – may find themselves locked out of the gates of the bloc.
With large numbers of diaspora, working migrants, and students in the EU, restricting travel for these Europeans — as they are mostly inoculated with Chinese and Russian vaccines — would be not only undesirable, but also unfair in a time in which Western Balkan leaders have openly expressed feeling let down, especially in the first wave of Covid-19 last year and the ordering of vaccines.
“As a human, I felt indignant, and as a European, ashamed,” Albanian PM Edi Rama said, voicing his disappointment over the fact that Western Balkans countries, which are in process of becoming EU members, were left on their own to haggle with Pfizer and others, while the bloc was negotiating as one entity. President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia commented that “It’s not easy watching the others in the surroundings taking all those vaccines, and you have nothing to offer to your people…We needed to take care of ourselves.”  
This neglect during the first wave of vaccination, where speedy inoculation of nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers was crucial, coupled with the slow roll-out of vaccines from the EU-supported COVAX scheme for disadvantaged countries, seems to have been one of the reasons behind the region’s decision to turn their sights to the east. Only Kosovo is so far resisting the temptation of using Chinese and Russian vaccines, in part because those countries don’t recognize its sovereignty.
Against this backdrop, an exclusion due to their “wrong” choice of vaccines would further bitter the sentiments of Balkan leaders and will look like a second let down during the pandemic – feeding into a broader sentiment that the EU is not paying enough attention to a region already fatigued by a lengthy and draining integration process. 
Fatjona Mejdini is a freelance journalist covering the Balkans and the regional field coordinator for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
Fatjona Mejdini is a freelance journalist covering the Balkans and the regional field coordinator for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
🇬🇷 Viral: When the lockdown paradox makes you feel like an (oxy)moron
Translation: “Chania, tonight, 9 p.m. at a well-known central hotel. While some of us have to stand outdoors with masks for a quick secret drink, others enjoy their dinner in restaurants or hotels without masks. How much of a ‘mal@kas’ do you feel when you pass by and watch them?” (Source: fb.com)
Translation: “Chania, tonight, 9 p.m. at a well-known central hotel. While some of us have to stand outdoors with masks for a quick secret drink, others enjoy their dinner in restaurants or hotels without masks. How much of a ‘mal@kas’ do you feel when you pass by and watch them?” (Source: fb.com)
“Mal@kas”. If you’ve ever been around Greeks you definitely know this word is always used in uncomfortable situations. This is how I felt when I saw the photo and post (see translation in caption) myself too. However I felt neither the appetite for a gourmet dinner at a restaurant nor a beer with my friends — but instead the urge to declare that I refuse to be a second class citizen in my own country! As I lived in Chania for some years and know the place, I could definitely relate to the sentiment.
The Facebook post went viral inside the small Cretan town after the first German, Israeli and Dutch tourists arrived on many of the Greek islands last week, some of them with a negative test, others with a vaccination certificate. 
The paradox is that while foreign tourists with a vaccination certificate can move freely around the country, the roughly 756,000 Greeks who have been fully vaccinated so far are not even allowed to leave their houses without texting a five-digit code to the government for permission. Take my family situation for example: I haven’t seen my parents since last summer, because even though my dad, 67, is fully vaccinated and my mom, 59, is pretty safe from self-quarantining, we can’t legally travel to meet.  
No wonder then, that the post sparked many reactions, such as this one: “Tourists eat and drink while we haven’t been able to see our families for a year.” Family plays a big role in Greece and it’s the first time that our well-bred generation takes it seriously — not because of pragmatic financial dependencies (like living off our parents pensions) that could ease our unemployment burden, but because of a renewed emotional bonding during these tough times, where contracting Covid-19 can be a matter of life and death. 
The second paradox is that Greece is reopening its borders while Covid-19 deaths are still spiking across the country. Retail shopping is open by appointment only and high school students are obliged to self-test every Monday and Tuesday, but Greece is throwing open its doors to all tourists, regardless of tests and vaccinations, on May 14th. 
Meanwhile, a German tourist tested positive for Covid-19 in Crete, the first imported case on the island.
Tassos Morfis is the editor & co-founder of AthensLive.gr a non-profit newsroom in Greece.
Tassos Morfis is the editor & co-founder of AthensLive.gr a non-profit newsroom in Greece.
🇪🇪 1 question to... Dan Bogdanov
Dan Bogdanov, 38, heads the Information Security Research Institute at Cybernetica AS in Tallinn, Estonia, and is the co-inventor of Sharemind, a data analysis system for securely processing confidential information. Photo: Anni Õnneleid/Ekspress Meedia.
Dan Bogdanov, 38, heads the Information Security Research Institute at Cybernetica AS in Tallinn, Estonia, and is the co-inventor of Sharemind, a data analysis system for securely processing confidential information. Photo: Anni Õnneleid/Ekspress Meedia.
Mr. Bogdanov, can the EU’s Digital Green Certificates really secure digital privacy rights and how should such a coordinated European tool be implemented safely?
I’ve had the chance to study the documents published by the European Commission, and it’s not clearly defined what security means for vaccination passports. Many questions remain unanswered.
For example, how will passport issuers secure the signing keys providing authenticity to the passports, or revoke keys in the case of theft? The [current] security model assumes those using the passports have the right intentions.
Risks could be reduced by cutting attributes like “date of birth” and “country of vaccination” from the proposed EC passport. If the infrastructure is trusted, validation shouldn’t need this information.
Estonia has years of experience offering its citizens services based on digital identities. We’ve had to revoke keys and recover from mistakes of technology vendors. Today, our designs are battle-tested and in everyday use.
The EU should avoid a grand centralised identity model, even if it’s a byproduct. Such infrastructure should be carefully thought through, or it may lead to unintended or dangerous re-use. The published EC documents state that due to urgency, no impact analysis has been carried out.
In the end, the member states themselves will determine if the passport is non-discriminatory. We’ll have to ask ourselves: What if one country restricts access to concerts or pubs and another adds a checkpoint to churches or synagogues?
Regardless if passports are digital or paper, the fair distribution of vaccines and agreement on immunisation standards are crucial prerequisites for them to have any effect in our shared emergency.
Holger Roonemaa is an investigative journalist at Ekspress Meedia in Estonia.
Holger Roonemaa is an investigative journalist at Ekspress Meedia in Estonia.
What we were reading and watching
Can vaccine passports kickstart the economy? | The Economist (Video)
Serbia invites its neighbours over for a COVID vaccine | Euronews
The History of Digital Identity in Estonia | Cybernetica
How a legacy of crises inspired Greeks’ compassionate response to COVID-19 | National Geographic
This week's coordinating editors: Christian-Zsolt Varga & Lucy Papachristou (both n-ost)
This week's coordinating editors: Christian-Zsolt Varga & Lucy Papachristou (both n-ost)
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