We can all agree that this year has truly been a series of unfortunate events. We’ve all been affected by the COVID-19 crisis somehow, whether that is by the virus itself or its repercussions. Thus far, all my family celebrations—birthdays, last day of school and Easter—have been spent in isolation. Like many, quarantine has completely revamped my family dynamic.
Despite having lived in the UK all my life, my father is based in Lisbon, Portugal. When Europe was declared as the epicentre of the outbreak back in March, Spain, Italy and the UK were highly covered by news outlets. During the madness, I began questioning Portugal’s drastically low rates despite neighbouring Spain. How exactly did Portugal become Europe’s exception and how can we learn from this?
Before we critically analyse how Portugal’s government handled the COVID-19 situation, it’s important to point out some facts. One being the country’s large elderly population and underfunded health system, which means that if Portugal had been hit as hard as Spain, the results would have caused severe damages and excessive death rates.
According to Bloomberg’s Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak Across the World, on 1 May, Portugal has a total of 25,045 cases and 989 deaths. This strongly highlights the difference with other European countries such as the UK, which has on the same day 172,481 cases and 26,842 deaths.
What did Portugal do differently from other countries? On 12 March, Portugal’s government ordered that all schools nationwide be closed down, whereas in the UK orders were not given until 20 March. The decision to close all the educational systems and night clubs came as soon as reports showed 245 cases in the country. In comparison, Spain had hit over 2000 infections by the time the regional governments closed schools. The decision to effectively close sooner rather than later could be a reason why their rates are significantly lower.
Furthermore, on 28 March, Reuters published an article stating: “Portugal to treat migrants as residents during coronavirus crisis.” Prime Minister António Costa’s decision to turn all pending applications as permanent residents until at least 1 July is to ensure migrants have access to healthcare treatments. To my knowledge, no other country has implemented this, but someone could argue many are prioritising minimising the spread instead.
Since the pandemic hit Portugal, the economy has plummeted as the country heavily relies on tourism. Despite the low rates of those battling the virus, many citizens have been monetarily affected by job losses. Families such as mine are among the many Portuguese residents who work in ‘labour induced industries’ such as mechanical engineering, hospitality and factory workers in the textile industry.
Although they are eligible for some of the financial benefits being offered such as child and housing benefits or sick pay for two weeks, they are nowhere near as beneficial as the ones offered in the UK or enough to make ends meet. Furlough is not a term familiar to Portuguese residents and working from home is a luxury to those who have the option. This means that many have been left to the option of just waiting it out. And amid the wait, Easter arrived.
Easter Sunday has just passed and typically Portugal would be in full bloom, given that Catholicism is the predominant religion. On that Easter Sunday, I virtually spoke to my grandma to check-in and her response had me in hysterics: “The prices of everything have gone up. So, I’m having meat on Easter because fish was too expensive. I wonder what Jesus would make of this,” she told me over the audio of her live-streamed church service.
Just like many other, the pandemic has completely reshaped how my family and I navigate our relationships. Distance means nothing anymore and yet it means everything. The most bittersweet moment of quarantine thus far has been the latest addition to my family, my baby cousin Maria. Following her birth, I’ve branded her a ‘coronial’ and I probably won’t meet her until 2021, but being introduced with good health is worth the wait.
Along with washing our hands and staying home as much as possible, we must look at these ‘strange times’ and see in them an opportunity for change. Many have been saying that a ‘new normal’ is coming, but what does normal define in the first place? Whether you’re based in the UK, the US, Portugal or any other country, things are about to change. This is something else we, as well as our countries, should be getting ready for.
On the 31st day of my quarantine, I received a call from a friend; he sounded upset and explained that he had just been stopped by the police while going for his daily run around the neighbourhood. According to him, the police approached him and spoke to him aggressively. They then questioned the reason behind his activity by making threatening remarks, repeatedly ordering him to go back home and reminding him that in other countries a man running around for no reasonable explanation would have been thrown in jail. This encounter happened in Italy, where, at the time, running alone in proximity to your house was still allowed.
“I told you the police would start abusing their power,” my friend told me. During the first weeks under lockdown—when the regulations were still blurred and our future uncertain—we did find ourselves repeatedly speculating on the possible threats that a state of emergency could mean regarding the state overpower and potential police misconduct. Yet, I partially disagreed with my friend: the abuse of power by the police isn’t a by-product of the pandemic, it has been happening around us for way longer. The only difference today is that under these exceptional circumstances, what was once only visible to those who were systematically targeted by the police has suddenly become visible to us all.
Law enforcement is playing a big part in managing the COVID-19 crisis as more and more countries all over the world are calling for an increase in restrictive regulations concerning social and physical distancing. As reported by Al Jazeera in a recent article on police violence on the time of pandemic, after a couple of weeks since a mandatory curfew was implemented in Kenya, there have been more deaths from the police than virus-related ones.
Kenya is far from being the only country accused of such behaviour. Stories of police brutality enacted in the name of control and the enforcement of rules have spread like the virus itself, showing officers in India, Mexico, Egypt and other countries threatening people in the streets, using physical punishment in public and forcing people to follow containment measures at gunpoint. As the days pass, it is evident why more concern over the sovereignty of the police is rising.
“The point is that the police—contrary to public opinion—are not merely an administrative function of law enforcement; rather, the police are perhaps the place where the proximity and the almost constitutive exchange between violence and right that characterizes the figure of the sovereign is shown more nakedly and clearly than anywhere else,” wrote the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in 1991. Fast forward 30 years from then, one could argue that his words are still relevant. What is happening in front of our eyes isn’t a shift in the way the police act, but rather the unsettling revelation of their unbridled power and sovereignty in countries all over the world.
Of course we should avoid making generalisations, but as police helicopters loom over our heads throughout Easter weekend and the mobility of citizens is (rightly) limited to maintain the spreading of the virus, it’s not just a right but an obligation to scrutinize and question the modalities in which those same rules are imposed on citizens. If we can learn one thing from this pandemic it is that, as solidarity and a shared sense of support are spreading, pre-existing inequalities and state flaws grow even larger.
It is in this mindset that we need to look at some of the police’s coercive attitudes, not as an unavoidable shift in behaviour, but as a testament to a systemic issue. The question right now is not whether law enforcement agencies need to undergo some changes or not; they clearly do and that’s not new. As we witness more and more police violence during the pandemic, the real question is whether this sudden awakening will remain among citizens, and hopefully governments too, once this crisis is over.