Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments have implemented policies intended to minimize the risk of infection, but which impose very real costs on people on the receiving end. In the case of COVID testing policies, requirements have frequently been implemented before the means to easily satisfy that they exist. So, it's no surprise that a black market in negative test results has developed for travelers concerned that they'll be stopped at a border or stranded in-transit if they can't produce sometimes difficult-to-source health documents on demand.
Once again, for those who haven't paid attention in the past: people will find ways to bypass the rules if governments impose mandates that seem excessive or difficult to obey.
The black market has emerged as many countries require recent negative COVID test-results before permitting entry—sometimes more recent than is easily available.
"It is difficult to get one unless you are a key worker," one British man who wanted to visit Pakistan, which requires tests within 96 hours of the travel date, told the Lancashire Telegraph. As a result, he said, it has become common practice to alter somebody else's documents.
"It is quite simple. Everyone knows someone who has had a Covid test," he added. "You can simply get their negative test and change the name and birthdate to your own. You also put a test date on which is within the time limit required."
In other cases, travelers find that there are illegal vendors prepared to sell negative results to buyers who need documentation.
"Officials in France said Friday that seven people have been arrested for selling false certificates of negative coronavirus tests to travelers at Paris's largest airport, Charles de Gaulle," the Associated Press reported earlier this month. "The Bobigny prosecutor's office said the faked certificates were being sold to travelers for 150 to 300 euros ($180 to $360)."
Some travel agents allegedly offer fake COVID test results among the services they provide their customers now. That an industry struggling to survive lockdowns and border closures is willing to offer a bit of illegal added value to customers trying to evade such controls should surprise exactly nobody.
Dealers in bogus COVID test results are sometimes just building on already established markets serving people who need to cross borders more easily than health officials would allow.
"At the main bus terminus in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, travellers heading to neighbouring Zambia can be tempted by offers of counterfeit travel vaccination certificates. A thriving black market there sells a fake proof of immunization for between US$ 15–20," the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged in October.
Some buyers of bogus test results are obviously interested in purchasing counterfeit documents so they can conceal infections that would otherwise limit their mobility; that's unfortunate, but inevitable. But as many news reports make clear, the black market in negative COVID tests often results from demands by officialdom that travelers provide documentation they just can't procure on time or at a reasonable price. As the UK's Daily Telegraph notes, "a 'fit to travel' Covid certificate is the new holiday must-have, but obtaining a PCR test can be expensive, time consuming and complicated. Is it any wonder, then, that reports are emerging of illegal counterfeit certificates?"
Inevitably, governments have turned to tougher enforcement mechanisms and tighter controls in hopes of fighting the COVID test black market.
"The state of Hawaii, for example, requires visitors to preregister in their online testing program, use an approved testing partner, and upload results to a digital portal," reports The Washington Post. "Paper copies are not accepted."
For its part, WHO touts a "safe and approved digital verification system for travellers' immunization" as well as for COVID-19 test results. The idea is that high-tech systems will make it more difficult to pass through border controls with counterfeit health certifications.
Registration, digital verification, and arrests might help limit the reach of the black market. But it's not like enforcement efforts aimed at illegal businesses are new. Officials are likely just embarking on yet another contest with underground dealers who are at least as innovative as their government counterparts.
More productively, the company developing the digital verification system, Vaxiglobal, is also working on improving inventory controls for existing vaccines—and presumably for COVID-19 vaccines once they become available—with the aim of reducing expensive waste. They hope more efficient distribution will make them available at prices competitive with counterfeit certifications.
Likewise, some airports now see a ready market in making available the tests required by the destinations they serve.
"Passengers flying from London Heathrow to Hong Kong will be able to have a rapid Covid-19 test at the airport before checking in," according to The Guardian. "The tests, which must be pre-booked, cost £80 and results will be available within an hour."
Airports and airlines elsewhere have moved to offer similar testing so that their passengers have access to the means for satisfying health requirements.
Offering easy and affordable COVID-19 testing is a sensible way of addressing rules that were implemented before compliance became widely feasible. It won't address the problem of travelers trying to conceal positive test results and potential infections. But it will make dealings with the black market less necessary for healthy travelers who previously had no reasonable means of obtaining the certifications that they need.
All of these shenanigans could have been avoided if, before putting COVID testing rules in place, government officials had considered whether the public would be willing and able to comply. Then again, considering the reasonableness of rules isn't really something that government officials do.