Portugal has rightly been applauded for the way in which the government, from the president to frontline nurses as well as the community itself, have dealt with the new coronavirus pandemic.
The timely and resolute actions of the government, such as closing face-to-face learning in schools, imposing restrictions at the border with Spain and the introduction of the State of Emergency, as well as the leadership shown by the minister of health, have undoubtedly minimised the number of deaths and confirmed cases here.
However, the economy has suffered a great deal, people have lost their jobs and others have become temporarily unemployed. The government has launched many programmes to assist those who have suffered economically, including those in the tourism industry. This has helped but is obviously not sustainable in the longer term.
As we continue to emerge from the lockdown, there will be an eagerness to get back to full normality as soon as possible. People need to return to work and businesses need to restart to ensure, in many cases, their survival.
The government set out a three-phase deconfinement plan, from May 4, which was clear and easy to understand. Phase 3 from June 1 includes: partial teleworking; reopening of the Citizens Bureaux; reopening of stores with an area of more than 400sqm or inside shopping centres; re-opening of crèches and pre-schools and reopening of cinemas, theatres, auditoriums and concert halls (reduced capacity and physical distance).
This, and the start of the bathing season on June 6, has already seen many more people outdoors, so it is important that the laws of social distancing, hygiene and face masks are respected. If we do not, all that we worked hard to achieve could be reversed. The number of deaths (regretfully one too many, of course) and confirmed cases are showing smaller growth since the easing of lockdown measures were introduced, except confirmed cases in Lisbon.
Flights from the UK and European countries to Portugal are now commencing with increasingly planned schedules. Tourism is vital to our economy, with many jobs dependent on it, but so is the safety of our population. There is a need for caution in this respect, to avoid any importation of the virus from other countries, which have not contained the situation as well as Portugal.
The government has, therefore, recently reinforced its measures at the 10 ANA airports for both departing and arriving passengers to meet increased passengers over the next few weeks. There are notices reminding visitors to respect the rules in place.
Border restrictions remain in place with Spain and for flights to and from Portugal outside of Europe (a few exceptions) until June 15, both subject to review and extension if need be.
WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged policymakers recently not to lift lockdown restrictions too rapidly.
“Countries that move too fast, without putting in place the public health architecture to detect and suppress transmission, run a real risk of handicapping their own recovery,” he warned.
He also said on June 3 that more than 100,000 cases of Covid-19 have been reported to WHO for each of the past five days. The Americas continue to account for the most cases. For several weeks, the number of cases reported each day in the Americas has been more than the rest.
So, there is a balance here but, as always, it must be the health of the nation first. Portugal does have an advanced health infrastructure in place to deal with Covid-19 and this, in my view, has worked well to date.
Rural fires and Covid-19
The emergency services have had a considerable workload during the pandemic, with responsibilities falling not just on the health service, but civil protection, INEM, the army and the police in particular, but also, to some extent, the Bombeiros.
Now we have entered the rural fire season, this could place greater demands on all these emergency services if there was for instance the outbreak of a series of major fires. The Secretary of State for Civil Protection has explained clearly that taking into account the Covid-19 pandemic, there is an increased provision in resources in the national firefighting plan for 2020.
I for one, however, do not want to put that to the test and I am sure nor do any of us.
Both the spread of Covid-19 and the outbreak of rural fires have one thing in common – it is through humans.
The Bombeiros and the other emergency services have been given guidelines on taking Covid-19 precautions when fighting fires to keep themselves and the people they are trying to protect and rescue as safe as possible.
Any spread of Covid-19 within firefighters at a time of serious fires would have grave repercussions.
How to avoid the Perfect Storm
So, our emergence from the lockdown measures needs to take these factors into full account. With more in circulation, the risks increase so we must continue to be vigilant. When tourists do return to Portugal in numbers, then it is incumbent on them and all service providers to ensure their clients obey our rules.
We have encountered a very dry period, with very hot temperatures in May. EU’s Crisis Commissioner, Janez Lenarcic said last week that Portugal and Spain are at a ‘high risk’ of wide-spread wildfires this year as a result of drier weather – so we need to be aware and prevent these.
Covid-19 has been the biggest threat that Portugal has experienced in our lifetime, but so is the threat of rural fires. We, therefore, need to redouble our efforts to avoid a “Perfect Storm” where we have to deal with these crises simultaneously.
Safe Communities Portugal has the most comprehensive information on Covid-19 and rural fire prevention/protection available in English. Please visit www.safecommunitiesportugal.com
By David Thomas
David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In 2011, he founded Safe Communities Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal.