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NA Reports – The Difficult Question: Will We Remain Socially Alive? - Concerns from Portugal

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Wed 13 Jan 2021

João Teixeira Lopes, President of the Portuguese Sociological Association (APS)

As a sociologist, I feel compelled to share some of my concerns with you.

The first has to do with the risks of a prolonged period of seclusion, due to exceptional measures enacted by the State. In these circumstances, the exaltation of urgency monopolises attention, and large swathes of our society slide even more abruptly into areas of shadow and invisibility. The distribution of risk is always uneven, even at times of generalised and widespread threats. There is no doubt in my mind: even if they are necessary, these measures will affect the most fragile individuals, socially and economically speaking. To begin with, the socially vulnerable (the elderly, people with mental illness, prisoners, the homeless population), who have few ties, and find themselves isolated and unable to mobilise support networks. Either social solidarity institutions adapt quickly, and are able to deliver goods, medicines, information, and comfort to the people that are most confined, or their physical and mental health might significantly deteriorate. I suggest, moreover, reinforcing measures to monitor the functioning of retirement homes, since we already know how some of them operate in precarious situations that border on illegality. Similarly, human rights associations must be able to assist prisoners, and, to prevent situations of abuse and violence, child and youth protection commissions need to activate their resources and forces. Municipalities and health services should protect the homeless population. It bears repeating: seclusion weakens the social bond, and cases of social relegation can proliferate.

However, I also do not forget the economically fragile: we know what the minimum wage (635 Euros) is, and we know the average monthly salary of employees (970 Euros). Wages reduced to 2/3 of the usual income will create difficulties for many people, not to mention independent workers who will only earn 1/3 of the previous months’ average.

Second, I think of worsening gender inequalities. As shown by studies on the uses of time coordinated by Heloísa Perista, from the Centro de Estudos para a Intervenção Social (Center of Studies for Social Intervention), Portuguese women are overloaded with domestic tasks. Either social gender relations undergo a revolution, which unfortunately is not plausible in such a short timeframe, or women, once again, will suffer more from the crisis. In fact, the situation of emergency will function as a test of organisation and relationship modalities that exist within family structures.

Third, I would like to underline my disapproval of the unbridled expression of exclusionary feelings generated by fear. In Portugal, as in Europe, we hear repeated calls for closing borders, which forget that the circulation of goods and the dignified assistance of sick people are essential. Unlike irrational panic, viruses ignore walls.

The clamour for assertive leadership and forceful attitudes is a sign of how uncertainty can be channelled to support false authoritarian solutions. Howling calls for coercive, stigmatising, and securitary measures agitate Europe, which was long ago overrun by the spectres of new fascisms. Is the old continent up to the task of coordinating solidary responses, providing social security for citizens, shelving the deficit dogma, and promoting public investment and social support policies? The drive to strengthen social bonds is more important than the illusion of security brought by sovereign authority, which increases the gap between those who decide and the subjects who obey. The worst that could happen would be a post-Covid-19 scenario in which societies surrendered, without democratic resistance, to the harbingers of racism, eugenics, and social hygiene.

In these times when joy is only a shadow and hugs are suspended mid-air, we must not forego the most difficult and urgent question: when it arrives, will the virus still find us socially alive?

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