While each of Beveridge’s “Five Giants” — want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness — remains unslain, one in particular retains the power to cripple entire nations with the stroke of a pen. The past three years have revealed many things, the most disturbing being the extent to which Beveridge’s notion of public health has been perverted. Not only is the NHS falling short of its original aim of providing free and adequate healthcare for all, but, as something meant to liberate human beings from the threat of disease, public health is slowly being transformed into an instrument of social control.
As new authentication and surveillance technologies, such as vaccine passports and track-and-trace apps, were rolled out during the pandemic, civil rights organisations and activists raised the question of mission creep — that is, the likelihood of governments clinging on to these technologies and using them for unanticipated ends, heralding a new era of normalised state surveillance.
Even the United Nations warned that the potential for abuse was high and that “what is justified during an emergency now may become normalised once the crisis has passed”. Some went even further, claiming that the pandemic was being deliberately exploited by global elites to usher in a “great reset” of human societies — a shift towards an increasingly propertyless, cashless, ultra-digitalised economy. At the time, such concerns were dismissed as groundless conspiracy theories. And yet, like so many other claims that were initially ridiculed and censored only to be proven correct over time, events are corroborating many of these fears.
Following the recent G20 meeting in Bali, the leaders of the world’s largest economies issued a joint declaration that, among other things, called for the establishment of a global vaccine passport and digital health ID scheme. The statement reads: “We acknowledge the importance of shared technical standards and verification methods, under the framework of the IHR (2005), to facilitate seamless international travel, interoperability, and recognising digital solutions and non-digital solutions, including proof of vaccinations.”
The International Health Regulations (IHR) 2005 are a legally binding agreement of 196 countries developed under the auspices of the World Health Organization. The IHR, which entered into force in 2007, required countries to strengthen surveillance capacities at border crossings and introduced a series of health documents, including international certificates of vaccination. The G20 leaders further stated: “We support continued international dialogue and collaboration on the establishment of trusted global digital health networks as part of the efforts to strengthen prevention and response to future pandemics, that should capitalise and build on the success of the existing standards and digital Covid-19 certificates.”
During the Business 20 (B20) panel held ahead of the G20 summit, Indonesia’s Minister of Health Budi Gunadi Sadikin made the same recommendation in even starker terms: “Let’s have a digital health certificate acknowledged by WHO — if you have been vaccinated or tested properly, then you can move around.” In a 132-page document that contains a series of recommendations for the G20, the B20 urged the widespread adoption of digital Covid-19 certificates that would be part of a “technology-enabled ‘always-on’ global health infrastructure”.
Sadikin added that G20 countries have agreed to the proposal and now plan to introduce it as a revision to the IHR framework at the next World Health Assembly, scheduled for May 2023 in Geneva. The idea is that the WHO should be given legally binding powers to implement such measures in the future. This is an attempt to revamp the WHO’s so-called international pandemic treaty — an effort to give it sweeping powers to dictate public health measures to countries with the full backing of international law, potentially overriding their national sovereignty.
This reform would effectively transform the organisation into something akin to a “world health government” with unprecedented powers to overrule the decisions of national governments in all matters of public health. Given the highly questionable role it played throughout the Covid pandemic and its well-known dependence on private “philanthrocapitalist” institutions — first and foremost the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — this is a rather alarming prospect.
Mainstream “fact-checkers” have been quick to point out that, even if the treaty were approved, the WHO would have no capacity to force member states to comply with public health measures. But while it is true that any law that isn’t backed by force is ultimately a paper tiger, such rebuttals ignore the way in which such a treaty could bolster the ability of governments to implement overreaching measures under the guise of public health precisely by engaging in “blameshift” towards the WHO (“It’s out of our hands — we’re just doing what they’re telling us to do!”).
They equally ignore that “peer pressure” exists even among nation states — countries can be cajoled into taking certain measures simply by painting refuseniks as pariah states (as Sweden knows all too well). And the refusal to implement a legally binding international agreement would certainly put any government under enormous pressure. This is especially true in the context of highly uneven relations of power between states. This explains why the main opposition to the treaty has hitherto come from African countries — a likely reaction to global Covid policies that have come to be seen by many on the continent as a novel form of medical colonialism.
Yet this doesn’t appear to concern developed nations. And this is where the normalisation of vaccine passports becomes most alarming. As we saw during the pandemic, Covid passports led to an unprecedented upending of rights and liberties that we took for granted in liberal-democratic societies. Never before had QR codes been used as a regulated requirement for entry into social life. Almost from one day to the next, millions of unvaccinated citizens found themselves stripped of their basic constitutional, civil, and human rights — the right to work, education, public transport, and social life. These policies caused massive psychological stress and economic deprivation, as unvaccinated people found themselves not only excluded from social life but in many cases also restricted from working.
What’s worse, it is now clear that Covid vaccines have a limited impact on transmission, which means that the original rationale for vaccine passports — that of creating “Covid-free spaces” and reducing the spread of the virus — was largely unfounded. It’s hard to see how the G20 leaders could describe this as a “success”, unless vaccine passports were not just a means to an end — mass vaccination — but also, and perhaps even more importantly, an end in and of themselves. It’s no secret that tech companies saw Covid passports as the gateway to all-encompassing digital IDs.
Corporations and international organisations such as the World Bank and World Economic Forum have long been promoting biometrics-based digital identity and health wallets — “digital passports” assigned to each citizen at birth that contain a person’s vaccination status and other health data (such as genetic tests and mental health records), as well as, potentially, their demographic, financial, location and biometric data. As researchers noted in the BMJ, this creates the potential for all sorts of rights infringements and discrimination based on personal status by governments, employers, law enforcement, and financial institutions.
This is exactly the “new normal” that many had warned about: one in which access to social life and the enjoyment of basic human rights, such as the right to freedom of movement, would become linked to the positive scanning of a digital ID containing all manner of personal data. As the WEF predicted in a 2018 report, this digital ID will one day “determine what products, services and information we can access — or, conversely, what is closed off to us”.
Projects of this kind are already underway across the world. India, for instance, has the largest biometric ID system on the planet, with 1.3 billion digital IDs issued, covering 92% of the population. Aadhaar requires Indian citizens to submit their photograph, iris scan and fingerprints to qualify for social services, benefits, compensation, scholarships, legal entitlements and nutrition programs. According to one report in the Financial Times, there have been “several cases of cardless individuals starving to death because they could not access benefits to which they were entitled”. As its author notes, some critics argue the Indian Aadhaar system “now acts as a tool for social exclusion and corporate influence”.
The notion of a digital ID that “gives you access to services” is also troubling because it implies that your right to access the services in question could be “switched off” at any moment. This is not some dystopian hypothetical scenario — in countries such as Italy, France, and Israel, double-vaccinated citizens lost their “status” when passports came to require a third booster dose in 2021-22; in Chile, that status was extended to a fourth dose in May 2022. A glimpse into what this may mean for the future was offered in June, when a protest planned by hundreds of bank depositors in central China seeking access to their frozen funds was thwarted when authorities turned their health code apps red, several depositors told Reuters, making it impossible for them to travel.
How is this connected to the “Great Reset” — a term which has come to encompass all the allegedly nefarious plans being hatched by the World Economic Forum and by its cartoonishly villainous chairman, Klaus Schwab? Well, for one, Schwab was invited to speak at the G20, where he claimed that the current “economic, political, social and ecological and institutional crisis” represents an opportunity for “a deep systemic and structural restructuring of our world”. A fundamental aspect of this brave new world envisioned by Schwab is the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, which in his own words consists in “the fusion of our physical, digital and biological identities”. Digital IDs, in this sense, should be understood as just the first step in a “revolution” aimed at completely blurring the lines between our bodies and emerging technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, and so on.
It’s not hard to see how such a system would hand corporate elites and their technocratic henchmen almost complete control over our lives. Yet this future is far from guaranteed. The pandemic has also shown that our increasingly digitised reality hasn’t suppressed humans’ basic need for physical connectedness, intimacy, nature — not in everyone, at least. The battle between the human and post-human therefore seems far from over. If introducing a biostate is the answer to Beveridge’s second Giant, it doesn’t seem like a very convincing one.