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ASEAN eyes digital vaccine certificate for post-COVID travel

Economic Ministers Discuss Following EU In Move Toward Immunity 'passports'

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Singapore's Changi Airport in January: ASEAN economic ministers have discussed the possibility of a shared digital vaccine certificate that could open up travel.   © Reuters

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are weighing a digital coronavirus vaccine certificate as they aim to revive the region's ailing tourism sector.

Opening up travel to people who have been inoculated against COVID-19 could help resuscitate an intraregional market that counted more than 50 million annual visitor arrivals before the pandemic.

Representatives from the 10 countries discussed the idea of a common certificate during the two-day ASEAN Economic Ministers meeting that ended Wednesday, according to Azmin Ali, Malaysia's minister of international trade and industry.

The ministers "shared their national efforts on the vaccination program" and agreed on the need to "speed up the implementation of the vaccinations" to spur economic recoveries, he told reporters.

"The economic ministers also deliberated on the possibility of introducing a common digital vaccine certificate, especially to speed up the opening up of sectors most hard hit, such as the tourism industry."

In his remarks, Azmin also said the ministers discussed boosting trade and investment, and he urged countries to ratify the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement the bloc concluded late last year with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. "This will help re-engineer both demand and supply that would help boost recovery as well as further spur the growth of economies across the RCEP regions," he said.

He made no mention of the situation in Myanmar, after ASEAN foreign ministers held a special meeting on the crisis the previous day.

Singapore's trade and industry minister, Chan Chun Sing, said on Facebook that the economic discussions covered "efforts to further advance digital connectivity in the region, preserve supply chains on essential goods, and recognized the importance of ratifying" RCEP.

The idea of a digital coronavirus vaccine certificate refers to smartphone-based proof of inoculation. Other countries and regions have or are considering launching such certificates, often referred to as "vaccine passports."

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, tweeted on Monday that the European Union would propose a "Digital Green Pass," proving that an individual had been vaccinated as well as showing test results for those who have been unable to get the jab just yet.

"The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans' lives," she said. "The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad -- for work or tourism."

Israel recently deployed a similar system to reopen its domestic economy -- with the passes allowing entry to leisure sites like gyms and theaters -- ahead of a possible expansion for travel use.

Many ASEAN member states have launched their vaccination campaigns, starting with health care workers and seniors. Singapore, for example, is expected to vaccinate all adults by September, while Indonesia plans to vaccinate 70% of its population by March 2022.

Tourism is a core industry for much of the ASEAN bloc. But it has been severely damaged by prolonged border closures, dragging down the regional economy. Thailand's gross domestic product shrank 6.1% in 2020, while Singapore's dropped 5.4%.

According to data from the ASEAN Secretariat, the 51 million intra-region visitor arrivals recorded in 2019 accounted for 36% of the bloc's total. Besides tourism, countries' close economic ties mean companies have multiple offices throughout the region, creating demand for business travel.