Carte blanche from the cultural sector — October 7, 2021
In Brussels and Wallonia, the regional authorities announce the extension of the Covid Safe Ticket (CST) from October 15. This tool, created a few months ago to allow the resumption of mass events, will now condition access to a certain number of places and activities gathering more than 50 people to proof of a vaccine, a recent immunization or a negative test to Covid-19. Areas subject to this CSE extension will see a series of restrictions lifted. Thus, in the « sector » of arts and culture, which mixes a lot of different realities, places will now be allowed to return to full capacity and spectators will be able to remove their masks. In return, the organizers will have to control the public and, if necessary, refuse access to any person who does not have this pass.
Not a moment too soon, say some who see it as an opportunity for a well-deserved return to normalcy. It must be said that in the last 18 months, some sectors such as culture have been particularly hard hit, being forced to alternate long periods of total closure with periods of opening conditioned by strict protocols, and this despite all scientific studies concluding that rooms offering seated activities are very unlikely to spread the virus.
In our view, the CST perpetuates the double standards that have been in place since the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic in Belgium and that claim to distinguish « the essential » from the non-essential, a ritornello that always favors market activities and the consumer economy. In the absence of reliable comparative studies, and in the absence of proof of its true effectiveness, the scope of application of the CST would once again obstinately concern specific sectors of activity rather than situations where the risks of transmission would be tangible. It should be noted that the system is imposed on cultural and social places, but not on companies or shopping centers where thousands of people gather every day.
In our view, the CST perpetuates the double standards that have been in place since the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic in Belgium and that claim to distinguish « the essential » from the non-essential, a ritornello that always favors market activities and the consumer economy.
Public health logic, really? Or a political choice to instrumentalize certain fields of activity in order not to affect others? A look at our neighbors provides some answers. In France, the government had chosen this summer to extend the sanitary control system to shopping centers of more than 20,000m2 in the regions most affected by the epidemic. The measure was very short-lived, with several prefectures quickly suspending it in the face of an outcry from employers and large retailers deploring a significant drop in their commercial activities. But when movie theaters complained that the introduction of the health pass had cut their attendance by almost half, the authorities did not blink.
The carrot and the stick, but to what end?
Despite a name that explicitly refers to « security », there is reason to doubt the ability of the CST to achieve the objectives attributed to it by governments: to limit the circulation of the virus, to avoid saturation of hospitals, to prevent a new confinement. There are few politicians who would argue that CSE is really a risk reduction tool. Not many people have demonstrated that the balance between its advantages and disadvantages would justify its generalization.
Several Belgian epidemiologists have recently pointed out that this device has not proven its effectiveness, and that it could even increase the risk of contamination in certain situations because the chosen method, that of the carrot and stick, provides for the suspension of barrier gestures.
In April, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Emergency Committee spoke out against the introduction of health passes, in particular because they can « exacerbate inequalities » but also because of the « limited evidence regarding the performance of vaccines in reducing transmission ». In August, the Crisis Strategy Expert Group for Covid-19 (CSEG) recommended to the Belgian government that CST should only be used in contexts where it would have strong health legitimacy, such as mass events with a significant risk of transmission that could not be prevented by other less intrusive measures. The GEMS experts felt that without an application based on this principle of proportionality, the CST would be perceived as a disguised vaccine obligation and would only increase the polarization of society.
A changeover whose long-term effects are not yet fully understood
For while vaccination against Covid-19 remains legally a voluntary act, the purpose of the CST appears less as a sanitary bulwark than as a political parade, i.e. to stimulate the vaccination campaign by a form of obligation that does not say its name and in which the State offloads its responsibilities on the teams of the places concerned, supposedly transformed into control agents.
Very pragmatically, we must first remind you that we are neither competent to manage the tensions that this sorting of the public will inevitably provoke at the entrance of our places and activities, nor are we authorized to control identities. We also cannot afford to hire security companies, nor do they have the authority to check identities. But above all: it is not our role! We didn’t get into these jobs for that. This is contrary to the ethics and values that we defend through our activities and our productions. If we have a role to play, it is that of maintaining links in a social cataclysm, of preserving social life from the anxiety-provoking and divisive effects of the health crisis, of overcoming inequalities in access to and participation in culture.
We do not have to interfere in the private sphere of the users who frequent our places or activities, whether by checking their vaccination status or their identity, i.e. by participating in what the Data Protection Authority (DPA) describes as« particularly significant interference with the right to privacy and the right to protection of personal data ». We are not here to exclude or stigmatize anyone, to deprive people of their cultural rights, nor to participate in socially disabling them… not even those who, for whatever reason, are not vaccinated, not yet vaccinated, cannot afford tests, are undocumented, or refuse to undergo such checks.
A few days before the CSE theoretically comes into effect, we would like to sound the alarm on this device which, in our opinion, constitutes a dangerous precedent. Not only does it risk prolonging itself over time and expanding in the face of an epidemic that is clearly not temporary, but it also risks reproducing itself on other occasions, in short, « normalizing » itself while multiplying discrimination and strongly modifying our social behaviors. We don’t want to contribute to this shift towards a society that turns people into judges or police officers, that in doing so generalizes the use of smartphones and QR codes for control purposes, while contributing to increasing the digital divide.
This would be a changeover whose long-term effects are not yet well known. We are also not fooled by the human damage that CSE will cause in the short term among our audiences and teams. We believe there are other ways to approach a public health campaign and address the unvaccinated population. We are convinced that solutions based on the expertise of the teams and on the particularities of each situation (the size of a room, the possibility of seating the public, etc.) would be more just and effective than a single treatment imposed in haste and without consultation on an entire « sector ». In any case, we know that there are much less discriminating and less privacy-invasive ways to welcome the public in the best possible conditions; international and Belgian studies attest to this… some of which were commissioned by the same authorities that now want to generalize the CST. The rest is a matter of political choice.