This is the fourth installment of a series in collaboration with the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR) Japan, which will explore how the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the need for a reset of the world’s economic and social systems.

Is COVID-19 driving globalization into reverse? On at least one metric — the number of people crossing international borders — the answer seems to be yes.

Global air travel is down more than 90% since the pandemic began, after decades of consistent increases. Airlines are hemorrhaging money and laying off staff, the tourism industry is on its back and millions of people are wondering when they will be able to dust off their passports again. Our once relentlessly shrinking world suddenly seems big again, its faraway places newly inaccessible.

Travel can seem like a luxury. With many countries experiencing yet another wave of new infections, normality looks like a long way off, and talk of anything other than battening down the hatches and waiting for a vaccine seems premature. Yet some groups aren’t content to wait. One of them is The Commons Project Foundation, a Switzerland-based nonprofit that is developing a smartphone “health passport” that could help revive international travel during — not after — the pandemic.

The foundation’s phone app, CommonPass, stores travelers’ health information, including coronavirus test results, and checks it against the confusing and ever-changing profusion of national entry requirements. The goal is simplicity and trustworthiness: a universal “green light” that travelers can show border officials in any country. Limited tests of the app started last month on flights between London’s Heathrow Airport and Newark Airport, which serves New York. Japan, with the Olympics approaching, may sign on too.

The World Economic Forum has partnered with The Commons Project Foundation to support CommonPass. Jonathan Soble asked Chizuru Suga, head of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Japan, about the project’s possibilities and challenges.

How important is it to revive international travel now?

In many ways it’s a good thing that people aren’t traveling.

The fact that there are more opportunities to work remotely is good. The fact that output is less dependent on physical location is good. And less travel means less strain on the environment. But we can’t keep borders closed forever. We want a world with freedom of movement. Having the ability to go where you want to go is important — some even say it is a fundamental human right. Whether we exercise the right or not is almost secondary. We should have the choice, whether it is to cross national borders or to travel to a neighboring prefecture.

And for many people, travel is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Take the border between Bangladesh and India, which some people have to cross every day to earn a living. Or think about disaster relief. How can you have volunteer work in disaster zones if people can’t cross borders, or if victims don’t want to let outsiders in because they’re worried about coronavirus?

There’s this kind of invisible fear. The best way to dispel that fear is to create a trusted form of proof that a person has been properly checked through internationally accepted methods.

That’s a big challenge, of course. The system has to be reliable and applied to every traveler, since it only takes a few infected people entering a country to trigger an outbreak. And you have to deal with different rules and standards, and get country A to trust that country B is doing testing and reporting properly, all while the science itself is still developing.

So how is CommonPass addressing these challenges?

By being impartial, for one thing.

A system like CommonPass inevitably handles sensitive information — health data, passport information and so on. If a country or a business were developing it, there would inevitably be trust issues that would make it hard to scale. And that would be a problem because a health travel ID system is only really useful if lots of countries recognize it. With CommonPass, you have civil society taking the lead and bringing in lots of different stakeholders.

Another way is by not trying to impose universal standards. Our watchword is “interoperability.” With coronavirus, there’s no consensus yet on testing — what the best test protocol is, what constitutes a safe negative result and so on. It’s not realistic to expect countries to agree that travelers should take X test from Y provider Z number of days before traveling. Vaccines will be the same, at least at first. Which ones will be recognized by which countries? The best we can do is facilitate information sharing and build the minimum connection points needed to get different systems to coexist.

Do you see health IDs becoming a permanent part of life?

In an ideal world we wouldn’t need them, and maybe COVID-19 will be decisively beaten at some point.

But it’s hard to imagine that the system would never be needed again. Any time there was an epidemic that crossed borders, it could be reactivated.

And it wouldn’t necessarily be limited to international travel, would it? I could see Olympics venues, conferences, even restaurants and other small-scale public spaces requiring them.

True. In fact, CommonPass was initially conceived with that kind of use in mind.

It was the World Economic Forum that suggested it be expanded for use as a global travel document — an idea that came from us at the Japan Centre, in fact. Again, it would be great if we didn’t need it, but if the alternative is giving up freedom of movement altogether, it’s a small price to pay.

Japan hasn’t signed on to the pilot program yet. Do you expect it to?

Japan is in a unique position because of the Olympics, which imposes a responsibility and a deadline.

We need to host athletes from every country and to welcome as many people from around the world as possible. So we can’t afford to just wait until someone else comes up with a solution — we need to lead and contribute.

But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. There’s no department or budget dedicated to ensuring open borders. Instead there are six government agencies with some kind of jurisdiction over the issue, but it’s not the main job for any of them. They all understand that developing solutions for reopening is important, but that’s different from leading the effort. Still, I think it’s slowly dawning on people, including at the top level of government, that a travel ID system needs to be put in place, and there is interest in CommonPass specifically.

One thing that makes a project like this hard is that it’s primarily about information. The digital world is harder for people to grasp than the physical one. If neighboring countries or municipalities want to connect their roads, say, it’s a pretty straightforward process. They can look at a map and decide where the fairest, most logical meeting points are. But in the digital world, it’s not always obvious what needs to be done. What data is in which databases? How do you make it intelligible across different systems? And that’s just the technical side. Making systems interoperable also means bridging different values and decision-making processes.

But it’s important that we do it, because the alternative is a fragmented world in which nothing works across borders, or one in which the strongest counties or businesses set the rules unilaterally.

Chizuru Suga is head of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Japan, and leads projects related to health care data policy, next-generation mobility, smart cities and other fields. Previously, Suga was an official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Jonathan Soble is the center’s editorial and communications lead.

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