Photo: Mário Cruz/ Lusa

Up to two years in jail for citizens who break Portugal’s new public health law

Government outlines future policy for public health emergencies as WHO ‘global accord’ causes knee-jerk controversy

This weekend sees 194 countries – including Portugal – discussing a new global accord, drawn up by the World Health Organisation, to try and ensure future pandemics are dealt with in a ‘more joined up way’.

It comes as the government here has published details of a draft law to govern public health emergencies in the context that prime minister António Costa has admitted not all decisions taken during the pandemic were “coherent”.

Headlines in the Portuguese press have been few and far between, but typically inflammatory. Jornal de Notícias for example ran with “Protection in public health emergency allows for up to two years in prison”.

This is actually just ‘part’ of the draft law, presented by António Costa, and designed to give parliament “a relevant role in public health”. And it’s not all bad. There are some clauses in the draft that seek to ‘protect citizens’ rights/ give people more recourse to the law – and even penalise (with prison terms) anyone unlawfully demanding proof of vaccinations and negative tests. 

But, on the whole, opposition parties see only further erosion of civil liberties, and thus the document is going to have a tough ride through Portugal’s legislative process.

In the short term, it has already been referred by President Marcelo to the Constitutional Court, which will ensure the process takes its time.

The PS argument for this legal revision is that the pandemic brought a reality that was addressed with laws that currently exist but which “manifestly must be improved, with a focus more centered on public health without neglecting citizens’ fundamental rights”.

The government has guaranteed that the wider debate will include civil society, specialists and academics.

In other words, what eventually transpires, should in theory ‘satisfy’ most if not all sections of society.

Much the same goes for the ‘accord’ coming up for discussion in Geneva this Sunday. The trouble is it is being dressed up as a Treaty – meaning people are being led to believe it will be enforceable under international law. Accords are actually not enforceable under international law. They are simply ‘international agreements’ (which history shows are invariably broken). Thus, much of the furore being whipped up over social media is unnecessary.

This has not stopped emails and petitions doing the rounds – even here in Portugal, where 5, 250 people have signed a petition calling for a public referendum on Portugal’s adhesion to the “WHO Pandemic Treaty”.

In UK, over 135,000 have signed a similar petition, while elsewhere there are #StopTheTreaty hashtags spinning through the ether.

A paper on the Lancet’s official site brings calm back to the topic: “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted profound weaknesses in the global governance of health; inadequate preparation, coordination, and accountability hampered the collective response of nations at each stage. Changes to the global health architecture are necessary to mitigate the health and socioeconomic damage of the ongoing pandemic, and to prepare for the next major global threat to health”, which everyone seems to agree will come ‘sooner rather than later’.

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