Sociological Reflections In Times Of Change And Uncertainty: Surveillance, Control And Punishment


On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic on Covid-19. Several countries, across the world, including Portugal, declared a state of emergency, and have been taking several measures, with a strong impact both on people’s daily lives, and in various sectors of the economy and society.

Being a sociologist attentive to the world around me, I felt the need to briefly reflect and comment on the current situation of global pandemic. The world is rapidly changing, what will follow next is unknown and it is still too early to assess the future impacts of the new coronavirus. Thus, the present analysis does not delve through the numbers, values, rates or other statistical indicators on the pandemic. Such is the risk of being swiftly out of date in view of the acceleration and uncertainty of the present times.

In geopolitical terms, we are witnessing tighter border controls or closure, and a reversal of power relations as poor countries (e.g. Mexico) are raising barriers to the richest ones (e.g. USA). The European Commission freed EU member states from budgetary discipline, i.e. from meeting deficit targets.  There is already talk of creating a European fund to deal with the Covid-19 crisis and issuing joint debt securities (eurobonds or coronabonds).

At the national level, in the EU, governments are taking steps to mitigate the impact of Covid-19. The declaration of a state of emergency in several countries made it possible to impose restrictions or condition the movement and permanence of people and vehicles. The declaration of a state of exception includes the suspension of individual rights, freedoms and guarantees, such as the restriction of movement, the prohibition of gatherings or demonstrations, the compulsory isolation, the suspension of the right to enter and leave the territory, among other aspects.

Such measures were instrumental in establishing a cordon sanitaire and ensuring the production and consumption of essential goods. This is the case of cities in Portugal (Ovar) and Italy (eleven cities in the north of the country), where a geographical quarantine was imposed. Another example was the civil requisition, in Portugal, of certain professional groups (such as dockers who were on strike). They were compelled to fulfill the minimum services in order to ensure the transport of essential goods to the Autonomous Regions of Portugal of Madeira and Azores.

Given the risk of community contamination, most people spontaneously adhered to the rule of social distancing and lockdown for the common good, resulting in greater physical and even social isolation. These new times test our individual and social responsibilities. However, some political difficulties may arise because, in complex and tightly integrated systems such as urban centers, social functioning is based on social interaction and public gatherings in the public space. There are groups that try to break the restrictions on circulation and large gatherings, requiring the intervention of security forces by warning or even punishing transgressors (fines or imprisonment).

Thus, surveillance and control systems are increased, translated into the control of road circulation in the main arteries of cities or highways (especially at weekends and during the Easter holiday), or in the installation of sensors for measuring the body temperature in some companies or at the airport arrivals. That is why some people have risen up against what they call the State’s authoritarianism in the management of this health crisis, due to the limits imposed on individual rights and freedoms. Others even question the legitimacy of imposing physical and social isolation on the elderly until the end of the year, which they consider stigmatizing and with serious physical and psychological consequences.

In the economic sector, there is an economic emergency. With the economy paralyzed, serious short-term consequences are anticipated, which have already begun to manifest. The impact of the crisis on cities, such as Lisbon, which had been focused on tourism (hotels, restaurants and commerce) is being discussed, as well as the consequences of having expulsed local inhabitants and centenary shops from the historic centers. In Portugal, some companies are forced to close and others “press” workers with unpaid leave, mandatory holidays or “illegal closures”. It is also expected that the contraction of economic activity will have future impacts on the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At the same time, unemployment is advancing at an accelerated pace and there is a loss of income for individuals and families, while penalizing the most precarious and vulnerable, thereby reproducing or intensifying old inequalities (Silva et al., 2020). There are families at risk of survival (as shown by the greater affluence to the pawn shops or the food bank) and the number of people on the threshold of poverty and social exclusion increases, along with the emergence of the “new poor”.

In the case of Portugal, the Government adopted a package of measures to support the economy in order to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 on companies and households. Credit lines were created for companies as well as the new lay-off regime. Postponement of payment of VAT and IRC is now possible. In the housing sector, evictions from illegally occupied houses are suspended, while creating an exceptional rent payment regime. Debts or defaults are forgiven (bank payments, household consumption expenses such as water, electricity and gas) and proposals for the adoption of universal basic income are discussed.

In the health sector, the pandemic introduced a health crisis, which implied the preventive measures already mentioned and the prophylactic quarantine. The health war metaphor leads to the mobilization of pre-retirement or retired health professionals, as well as those still in training, to do volunteer work in pavilions transformed in record time in field hospitals so that they can receive the most seriously ill. Complaints about the lack of tests and individual protection material (especially masks and gloves) for health professionals and their exhaustion increase. We hear must talk of the burden of the National Health System (SNS) and their inability to give response to other diseases, such as chronic ones. This results not only from stopping non-urgent care (for example, clinical analyzes and diagnostic tests for oncological disease are not being carried out), but also due to the fact that chronically ill patients avoid going to consultations or emergency rooms for fear of becoming infected at the hospital. Despite the accusations directed at the SNS of several countries, the performance of public sector health professionals has been fundamental and praiseworthy, when we compare them to countries where healthcare is completely in charge of private insurers, as is the case in the United States. In addition, this health crisis exposed the structural weaknesses of health systems. Our health systems were prepared to deal, in terms of public health, with diseases that had to do with individual behaviors (cardiovascular diseases, cancer or diabetes) and not with a pandemic related to a highly contagious disease and for which there is not yet a vaccine or drug, and whose therapies are still experimental.

In health and science, the sprint and marathon metaphor is referred to more than once. A political analyst used it to criticize the slowness of the initial response, the lack of means to fight the pandemic and the difficulties of the health system in its social and logistic transition (at the beginning it is a sprint, afterwards it is a marathon). Likewise, a computational biologist used the same metaphor to draw attention to the fact that, in virology, in addition to having to invest in the sprint phase (applied research in times of crisis to discover therapies or vaccines), it is equally essential to financially support the marathon, i.e., fundamental research over time, as scientific advances are cumulative. The technology sector also seeks to keep up with the new challenges, having launched a nurse robot in Varesi, Lombardia, in order to avoid the risk of infection and tiredness of health professionals, as well as to combat the lack of resources and personnel.

The situation becomes especially problematic for institutionalized people, given the danger of spreading the virus. Thus, in Portugal, the situation of the pandemic in prisons, led to the political decision to release some detainees with lighter sentences (up to two years) to reduce the outbreak in prisons. On the other hand, there is the problem of older people in nursing homes, where the nursing teams are not permanent, in addition to the problem of the lack of material and emotional well-being in many of them. Family visits were banned in an attempt to halt transmission chains, but there was also a break in intergenerational solidarity chains.

The ghosts of eugenics and Social Darwinism reappear, in terms of selecting the strongest people through political measures or the practices of health professionals. We see the dramatic situation in hospitals in Southern Europe, especially in Italy and Spain, where the decision about which critical patients were entitled to a ventilator or a bed in intensive care was based on their average life expectancy, given the need to manage the scarcity of resources and medical equipment. Or that in the United States there were those who proposed a sacrificial logic of the elderly for the common good (in other words the salvation of the market economy). Or the United Kingdom where initially a “naturalist” and “liberal” strategy prevailed, which established that everyone should come into contact with the virus in order for the British population to acquire “herd immunity”. At the sociodemographic level, it is an entire generation that disappears, especially in countries, such as Italy, with an inverted age pyramid, i.e., with a very aging population, which is the age group with the highest mortality rate from the virus.

In the media, news about Covid-19 now dominates the television news broadcasts and the press. We hear all the time mathematicians, virologists and epidemiologists on TV. Briefings from the Ministry of Health and the Regional Health Administration are disseminated almost daily. In contrast, in social media, especially in social networks, there is the spread of fake news and scams (fake trackers, fundraising, etc.). Everyone has an opinion. Some of them call for lockdown compliance, even assuming themselves as controllers of good behavior, while others question the veracity of the pandemic situation. Conspiracy theorists and far-right populists even win airtime on televisions, due to the public visibility they achieve, as happened with the Berlin protests in late April, against the restrictions, namely against the lockdown measures imposed by the German government to stop the pandemic. During the protest, participants distributed a newspaper entitled “Democratic Resistance”, which addressed the virus as an attempt by the ruling coalition to hold onto power through fear mongering.

How will we move from current changes to possible structural transformation? It would be futurology to say that the post-Covid.19 world will be characterized by a radical change in the political and economic model. However, it is expected that there will be a strengthening of the social welfare state (as opposed to the neoliberal capitalism) in the sense of rethinking public policies and models of social inclusion. It is also possible to anticipate changes in the labor market (with a possible increase in teleworking and a greater digitalization). But until then, we will have to deal with the uncertainty of the end of the pandemic and face some eminent dangers, either from a strong generalized economic recession and the consequent social crisis, or from an eventual resurgence of populism, extremism and nationalism.


Research Fellow at Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa (NOVA FCSH), Lisbon, Portugal.


P. A. Silva, R. M. Carmo, F. Cantante, C. Cruz, P. Estêvão, L. Manso, T. S. Pereira, Trabalho e desigualdades no Grande Confinamento,(Estudos CoLABOR, N.º 2/2020), Lisboa, CoLABOR, 2000.

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