President Marcelo emerged today virus-free from 14-days of self-imposed quarantine to chair a meeting of the Council of State on the wording for a declaration of a ‘State of Emergency’. Cases of Covid-19 in Portugal continue to escalate, despite all the measures so far put in place. The Head of State is adamant: there is no time to lose.
His decree emerged over the course of the afternoon, hours before he addressed the nation.
This is the first time a measure involving harsh restrictions on civil liberties – enshrined in the Constitution since the years of the dictatorship – has been implemented
It follows the declaration of a State of Public Calamity in the northern borough of Ovar on Tuesday, and over a week of exhortations to the public to “stay at home”.
The text was clear: lessons learned from Italy – and radical measures brought in there to try and halt the rising death toll – must apply to Portugal if we are to stem the tide of this devastating virus.
Stressed the head of State, his declaration is limited to what he believes to be “strictly necessary”.
Its effects “will terminate the minute normality has been restored”.
Addressing the nation before a parliamentary debate earlier this afternoon, prime minister António Costa explained the measures – which come into force at midnight tonight – will doubtless stay in place for some time.
This isn’t a battle that will be over by next week, he said. There are “months ahead of us”.
Measures in store
Beyond restrictions already in place (see box below), the declaration allows for:
- ‘Compulsive confinement’ of people in their homes or in health centres, to “reduce the risk of contagion and execute measures of prevention and combat”.
- ‘Sanitary controls’ to stop people leaving their areas of residence and/ or maintaining “unjustified permanence in the streets”.
- The requisition of private property/ properties to be used for any services, particularly healthcare.
- The obligatory opening and functioning, or indeed closing, of businesses – particularly those involving production.
- The enforced use of public or private sector workers in areas deemed necessary, for hours and in geographical locations to be stipulated by the authorities. (This particular clause is designed to ensure critical infrastructure and sectors ‘vital to the economy’ are kept in operation at all times).
- Further restrictions on air traffic in and out of the country beyond those imposed in agreement with the rest of the EU on Tuesday.
- Tight controls on meetings/ public demonstrations.
- Ditto on religious gatherings.
- Extra powers for security forces (meaning the police and armed forces), translating into a ban on people’s rights to resistance.
Before Marcelo addressed the nation at peak viewing time this evening, PM Costa impressed the need for citizens to understand the priority here is to “prevent the illness from spreading and to save lives”.
“Democracy is not being dispensed with”, he assured. “We will remain an open society with free citizens”.
From the outset Mr Costa has shown himself to be against a declaration of a State of Emergency, considering its measures excessive for what he believes could have been dealt with with a countrywide declaration of a State of Calamity.
But as some newspapers were reporting early today, the citizens of Ovar have already been found breaking the rules of quarantine imposed by the government under the ‘calamity’ measures.
In other words, President Marcelo refuses to take any more chances.
Signing off his decree, he wrote: “The effects of this declaration do not affect in any way rights to life, personal integrity, personal identity, civil capacity and citizenship, the principal of non-retroactivity of criminal law, the defence of official suspects or freedom of conscience and/ or religion”.
But it was clear from his opening paragraphs that he feels measures undertaken so far – even though extremely wide-ranging – have not been enough to contain Covid-19 and save the country from horrors being suffered in Italy.
Today has seen a 43% spike in cases here, with mathematicians predicting infection rates could reach 48,000 by the end of March.
With authorities expecting the peak of infections – at best – by the end of April (and that’s conservative, some are saying mid-May) there appears to be a massive road ahead in which everyone is expected do their bit to halt the spread of a virus that is already showing signs of returning after patients get the all-clear.
Schoolchildren pulled out of classes two weeks before the end of term are now looking at the dullest Easter holidays imaginable – and the possibility that next term will also go ahead ‘from home’ – while the nation’s businesses are staring at a terrifying precipice.
Good news? There is some: scientists are getting closer to developing a vaccine, people are recovering from the virus at home without recourse to hospital treatment – and the planet is ‘breathing’ as millions of tons of C02 habitually pumped into the atmosphere have suddenly been dramatically reduced.
Lessons will be learned from this frightening moment, but right now, it is all about ‘fighting for survival’.
As the president said as he signed off from his speech on national television, his decree has given the government “a wider base of law” with which to implement measures it deems necessary.
Changes to Portugal’s everyday began last week as the nation’s schools closed their gates and 1.5 million children ‘went home’. Bit by bit shops, businesses, municipal and government services shut down. Those left operating have been doing so wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves. Over the weekend, the government introduced new restrictions on movement: no large gatherings, no groups allowed on beaches, no watersports – no driving lessons (theory or practical).
Tomorrow (Thursday), the Council of Ministers will meet to ‘fine tune’ Marcelo’s decree and explain the measures to a newly-conditioned population.
In theory, the declaration can only stay in place for two weeks (ie till April 2) but in practice it is more than likely to be extended until the coast is clear, or at least ‘clearer’.
Right now, no one can tell when that will be.
For updates on this story, and reactions, see our website portugalresident.com