Portugal’s strongly collectivist culture has helped it fare better than Spain during coronavirus

The Iberian Peninsula siblings’ have respectively turned into the favourite child and black sheep, thanks to their distinctly different ways of handling the crisis. Worldwide, Portugal is regarded as exemplary in its COVID-19 response, from its speedy lockdown to its rigorous and extensive testing. Conversely, the bigger, impish, brother Spain has been criticised for its slow action and lack of cross-party support, culminating in the highest number of cases in Europe.


Their shared geography, history and 89% lexically similar languages has made it all too tempting for comparisons to be made between Portugal and Spain during coronavirus. That they both also have in common socialist minority governments in power makes this then utterly irresistible. But living in Lisbon myself, it is clear that what separates these two countries is more than just their government responses and a 1,200-kilometre border. 


The strongly ingrained collectivism of the Portuguese, versus the lack of cultural homogeneity in Spain (as well as political – at least temporarily during the crisis) isn’t to be underestimated.


Portugal’s government whip-fast response compared to Spain’s has been widely reported. The former’s first recorded case was on March 2, before swiftly thereafter declaring a state of emergency on March 19, when the death toll was just two. The complete closure of all schools and clubs, as well as a total ban on large groups, had already taken place prior to this.


Comparatively, Spain’s lockdown started on March 14, after 200 recorded deaths and six weeks after the first documented case. On March 8, the government still allowed International Women’s Day marches to go ahead, which attracted crowds in the tens of thousands across the country.


Cross-party support significantly aided the Portuguese government. ‘We are not going to cause problems for the country just to cause problems for the government’ said the leader of the main opposition party, the PSD (Social Democratic Party). Conversely, there has been incessant in-fighting in Spanish politics, with the opposition leader Pablo Casado from the People’s Party (PP) quoted in The Guardian as saying he said he would not put up with the “immoral” attempts to “hold Spaniard’s hostage”.


It reflects the “historic lack of a centre in Spanish political culture” said Berta Barbet, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Clearly, this has been to the country’s detriment in tackling COVID-19.


However, what also needs to be recognised is that Portugal’s strong collectivist values have likely played a role in its success. Applying renowned psychologist Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, which includes the degree to which a country is collectivist or individualistic on a scale of 1-100,  Portugal scores 27, making it a highly collectivist society compared to most of Europe, manifesting in a strong commitment and responsibility for the group. Spain is admittedly also collectivist, but with strongly regionalist attitudes and higher individualistic tendencies, scoring 51. Portugal also ranks highly on another dimension: uncertainty avoidance, scoring 99 out of 100. Countries that score highly on this dimension tend to maintain rigid codes of beliefs and behaviour, and firmly believe in rules.


We see both these dimensions sync together quite harmoniously through the Portuguese government’s rapid action, and how many “began working from home almost two weeks before it became compulsory “ highlighted the Financial Times. Once lockdown was implemented, 51 per cent left their homes once a week or less, a Publico survey found. Living in Lisbon, I saw this in real-time: the speed at which citizens obeyed was breathtaking in its calm conformity. 


 “We should celebrate the enormous self-discipline people have shown.” said Prime Minister António Costa. Similarly, the GNR commander-general Luís Botelho Miguel praised “widespread acceptance by the population” of lockdown rules.


This communal spirit was lacking in Spain.  Data published by the Interior Ministry shows that at least 30,000 fines have been issued each weekend since lockdown began (increasing to 35,000 on the first weekend after lockdown). But I’ll concede that Spain’s rules have been far stricter than Portugal’s and well, some incidences of unruly behaviour has been quite comical (the rebellious goat walkers come to mind here).


Of course, there is also an element of luck: Portugal benefited from the time lag in coronavirus cases, having fewer densely populated cities, as well as being dramatically smaller.


But the Portuguese success story still remains an uncompleted one: no-one knows what the future holds as the country slowly transitions out of lockdown.