Government backs down after week where messaging goes rogue

The last week in Portugal has seen news lurch alarmingly every-which-way. After the government’s declaration of a State of Calamity on October 15, citizens were suddenly told that voluntary contact-tracing app StayAway Covid would become obligatory; that if they didn’t download and use it, they would face fines, and that police would be ‘reinforced’ to check they were following the rules.

Jornal de Notícias carried the headline: “Government mobilises all police to check for app on mobile phones”, raising the spectre of agents stopping people in the street and demanding to see the StayAway Covid app duly installed on their devices.

The outrage that ensued came from every position of the political spectrum, every corner of society.

Constitutionalists railed that the measure wasn’t simply unconstitutional, it was unenforceable: PSD MP Luís Marques Mendes in his capacity as president of the parliamentary commission on constitutional affairs explained there is no law to say people should carry mobile phones every time they leave home. Thus, according to the government’s new ‘rule’, they could do just as they were ostensibly being told, but leave their phones behind every time they went out – rendering download of the app utterly useless.

Chief concerns, however, lay with the issue of ‘intrusion’: intrusion by a government on people’s basic rights and freedoms. It was this aspect that started people bristling the moment António Costa declared that citizens ‘had to download the StayAway app, as well as start wearing masks in busy streets’.

Initial public unease saw Mr Costa retort that ‘if people didn’t like it, the government would have to bring in even tougher measures…’
This went down even worse.

On Friday, as President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa was touring the Algarve to catch up with regional mayors and ‘spread’ his habitual ‘bonhomie’, he was forced to talk about the possibility of further lockdowns. He even used the words ‘civil disobedience’, when asked by a battalion of reporters in Aljezur where things might be heading … It was not a good moment for a country exhausted by constant media commentary on the increase in Covid infections, the increase in deaths and the increase in hospital admissions.

Worse perhaps was the incident late at night in Aljezur involving a group of activists who had been waiting to ‘catch the president’ all day beside a new pedestrian footbridge that they all believed was going to be ‘inaugurated’.

Reported on by Sábado magazine, it showed how certain sections of society are already heartily fed up with what they believe is a spurious narrative of fear.

Said the paper, the ‘Covid-deniers’ who faced the president ‘without masks or physical distancing’ outside the restaurant where he was dining with regional mayors, had a “crowd behind” them, some of which accused Marcelo of “acting stupidly”.

It was, in the end, a tiny incident in a tiny part of a region far from the capital – but it wasn’t the sort of story anyone would have wanted publicised on a national news website.

Said Sábado, the “deniers were convinced that China is controlled by the financial interests of five capitalist families…”

And on it went: “The lawyer (heading up the group) told the president he had approved an unconstitutional decree in declaring a State of Calamity because the Portuguese Constitution only allows for this measure in the face of effective or imminent aggression by foreign forces, when democratic order is threatened or when indeed there has been a public calamity. Marcelo’s answer was: try to challenge it in the courts…”

Again, not perhaps the way to placate a group of people who had been waiting misguidedly in the wrong part of town for the best part of 16 hours.

But, by this time, the government seemed to realise its ‘heavy-handed approach’ to Portugal’s outbreak of the virus wasn’t being ‘happily taken on board’. MPs were up in arms and the image of a country careering towards a second lockdown where families might be kept apart at Christmas was sending everyone to new levels of despair.

By Sunday, the message was changing – and, on Monday night, Mr Costa conceded an interview with TVI where he said there was “no question” of any new confinement – and that he would be withdrawing the ‘draft law’ seeking to make the StayAway Covid app compulsory.

Bit by bit, focus pulled away from the unconstitutionality of the government’s approach and returned to the not inconsiderable battle to get ‘allies’ on board to ensure the State Budget is approved in parliament next week.

Slowly, the chaotic soundbites of the last few days started to settle like the flecks in a child’s snow globe. The official narrative was appearing to pull itself back from the brink… and then President Marcelo decided to take off his clothes for a simple ‘promotional shot’ designed to encourage citizens to get vaccinated against the flu this winter (click here).

‘Why, oh why’ did he have to pose ‘naked from the waist up’ in a hospital, asked leader writers? It was absolutely the worst decision possible – an attempt to show the president as ‘a man of the people’ when the people were quite aware that he was in a class of his own, and should keep his clothes on for something as simple as a flu jab.

It wasn’t even presidential. Imagine former president Cavaco Silva sitting naked from the waist up in a hospital vaccination room; or even Mário Soares? No-one seems able to. “Even if he wants to (and he does show that he quite often might), President Marcelo cannot and should not try and be “everyone, everywhere”, said Fernando Alves of TSF radio.

The week has been almost too surreal for a half-naked president. But there it is. These are strange, disconcerting times.

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