First lesson of the crisis: We are more equal than we think

Diário de Notícias
The crowded beach of Carcavelos, Lisbon, on Wednesday, 11 March

People filled the beach of Carcavelos, twenty minutes’ drive from the Portuguese capital on the day the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. In Greece the beaches filled up at the weekend. And in Norway the government threatened to mobilise the army to empty the mountain huts – another favourite for a weekend get away.

The city streets are more deserted; in Lisbon, Athens and Oslo. It matters little whether the dominant religion is Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity or Protestantism. It makes no difference whether we are in the West, the East, the South or the North. Whether the GDP per capita is low or high. The threat of a disease has forced us into unprecedented social isolation.

We are slowly getting used to life as in a time of war, as Italy already has. In Piacenza, a city in northern Italy on Saturday 14 March alone, 24 people died from Covid-19.

But fear is spreading faster than the virus. Many countries have closed borders, and those that have not are urged to do so by those that believe that this is a way of controlling the pandemic.

Almost all European states have decided to suspend classes in schools and advise voluntary isolation. Many have closed cafés, bars and restaurants, barbers and shopping centres. In Lisbon, bakery windows display tidy cakes and empty tables. On the streets there are walkers wearing masks and, increasingly, gloves. Some people go out to exercise. There are those who go to the supermarket (and to the pharmacies, with their new orderly queues, and a distance of one metre between each customer waiting their turn). There are those who decide not to go out.

The new normality has been established in a short time. But on Wednesday afternoon (March 11), when many had already decided to isolate themselves, came news that provoked indignation: the beaches near Lisbon were full. With the thermometer reaching summer temperatures in the middle of winter and an uncertain future ahead, thousands of people decided to sunbathe and dive into the Atlantic.

Their action sent social media abuzz with accusations of a lack of social responsibility. Images showed the crowded beach of Carcavelos, contrasting it with the empty square of Saint Marco in Venice and concluded with the usual phrase in these circumstances: “Only in this country…”

But it wasn’t only in Portugal that official advice went unheeded.

On Saturday 14 March, just a few days after the Greek government closed bars, restaurants, cafeterias and malls, an inviting sun shone over the Aegean, and thousands of Athenians filled the beaches. In Asteras Vouliagmeni, south of Athens, a beach with a paid entrance, security guards had to disperse a crowd trying to get in, breaking the rules of space capacity.

Greek social media filled up with the same finger pointing as the Portuguese. And the Greek Prime Minister (centre-right) said the same as the Portuguese Minister of Health (centre-left): “I have just asked that all beaches and ski resorts be closed tomorrow. The situation is serious and demands responsibility from everyone. We should avoid public places with lots of people. Let’s rise to the occasion. # stay_ at home # stay_ at home”, tweeted Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Just look at the Sunday headline in Aftenposten, the largest newspaper in Oslo, Norway: “Government prohibits people from going to cabins outside their own municipalities”. The decision came after an identical mood to Athens and Lisbon was established. With the rules in place to advise the preventive isolation of Covid-19, many Norwegians decided to leave the cities and head for the mountains, where many have holiday cottages. Immediately, social media started accusing them of “cabin shame” (in Norwegian: hytteskam).

One cluster of municipalities in the mountain, with a resident population of 21,000, saw their numbers almost triple by Friday night to 55,000. Two cases of coronavirus were reported in one of these municipalities over the weekend, both were people in holiday huts. Authorities began using the geolocation tracking on mobile phones’ SIM cards to identify those who left the cities and broke the isolation.

“We will have a total collapse of our preparedness system if there is an outbreak of corona here,” said the mayor of a mountain municipality. “I was just going to stay at my cabin, maybe you were thinking? But if you’re unlucky and you cut yourself on the kitchen knife or break an arm, one of our doctors who will have to spend his time to help you,” says the chief medical officer in Hjelmeland, a coastal municipality. More than half of the people who called the emergency services on Saturday were people from the towns who travelled to the country huts.

As before, social media pointed the finger, this time with a little Nordic phlegm: “So they are considering sending the army to send people home. These idiots should have their huts burned down after they leave. #hytteskam#koronavirus#egoists”.

This may be one of the first lessons taught by the forced Covid-19 isolation, and it is a good lesson. One that belies the convictions of racists and nationalists: in our unique virtues, and in our endemic defects, we are much more similar than we are different, whether sunbathing on an Aegean beach, or hiking near a Norwegian fjord.