Following the seven days between October 20-27 in which Portugal registered more new cases of Covid-19 than during the whole month of September, PS power makers have had no choice. A number of hospitals are ‘reaching the point of rupture’; epidemiologists are predicting a level of new cases in the north reaching 7,000 a day by next week – and forecasts are for a record 444 critical patients in ICUs by November 4.
Early on Wednesday morning – as mayors and Civil Protection chiefs in Porto district were calling for ‘obligatory confinement’ to try and wrestle the situation back under control – prime minister António Costa announced an emergency meeting of the Council of Ministers for Saturday.
In the run up to defining new measures to combat the virus, Mr Costa will be talking to other political parties (on Friday) after taking part in an extraordinary meeting with the Council of Europe, via videoconference, today (Thursday).
The Council of Europe meeting will be designed to formulate a European response to the sudden surge in the pandemic’s severity that seems to be hitting member states almost simultaneously.
The ‘problem’ is that solutions for this ‘second wave’ cannot be the ‘lockdowns’ of the past: no economies could survive. Prospects are for nighttime curfews; restrictions that somehow leave businesses free to keep operating while reducing the risk of transmissions.
Schools ‘must stay open’, but it is widely accepted that this second wave corresponds to the fact that these are now back in operation.
It’s an ‘impossible time’ made equally difficult by society’s ‘exhaustion’. Even in Portugal the number of people starting to ‘speak out’ against measures, starting to doubt the official narrative, is growing.
Last week saw hundreds demonstrating in Lisbon against the new law obliging masks to be worn in busy streets, and today (Thursday) will see a new protest outside Belém against what everyone sees now as the inevitable: the government’s imminent declaration of a new State of Emergency.
In towns in Italy and Spain this week, ‘anger’ along the same lines has seen protests turn violent. This is almost certain not to happen in Portugal – but the whiff of ‘disunity’ is in the air, and this is the last thing authorities need.
Talking in his habitual Sunday evening slot on SIC television, respected commentator and former politician Luís Marques Mendes stressed it is not a question of ‘if’ Portugal declares a new State of Emergency – just ‘when’.
That ‘when’ was looking likely to come this weekend while the nation’s resident population is bound by a five-day ‘borough confinement’ rule. News on Wednesday afternoon, however, suggested possibly a State of Emergency can be averted, but there is no doubt as to the requirement for new restrictions.
Starting tomorrow, very few people will be free to leave their boroughs until 6am on November 3. This gives the government space to ponder the way forwards as people mentally prepare for a new State of Emergency.
It’s time for president to get people on board
Believe it or not, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is in the middle of an election campaign. In this most bizarre of years, with a number of candidates already declared to challenge him at the polls in January, Portugal’s uniquely popular head of State hasn’t even confirmed that he means to stand for a second term. He has always maintained that the pandemic is ‘far more important’ and needs to be dealt with first.
This week Marcelo has been locked in talks with health experts and authorities. He has been listening to numerous sources all calling for ‘obligatory confinement’ – and he may have heard Luís Marques Mendes’ comments that it’s time for a statement to the nation.
Someone has to try and ‘bring people together again’ and give them the sense of conviction that the only way this virus will be tackled is by everyone pulling together, said Marques. That someone will very possibly be President Marcelo.
Worst week yet in Portugal’s pandemic
The country has just been through ‘the worst week yet’ in terms of the rising level of infections as well as fatalities. Deaths now are coming in the 20s and 30s per day, as opposed to the low single digits of the summer months.
The worst situation remains in the north, though Lisbon/Vale do Tejo isn’t far behind.
Deaths in the Algarve have remained ‘negligible’ – just 25 so far – but concerns are that this tally too could ‘explode’ if new restrictions aren’t put into place.
As we wrote this text, official numbers for the last 24-hour period were coming through, with reports of a ‘new daily maximum’: 3,960 new cases of infection along with 24 further deaths (taking the global tally since the start of the pandemic to 2,395).
Hospital admissions fortunately were ‘lower’ than the previous 24 hours – 47 admissions, with nine new cases going into ICUs.
It sounds ‘manageable’, but forecasts still warn numbers are set to catapult upwards within the next two weeks – hence Saturday’s emergency Council of Ministers.
“Whatever we do now will define Christmas”
With councils already starting to put up Christmas lights, it’s clear that no one can predict how this seasonal celebration will play out this year.
The government is said to be preparing a measure to extend the limit by which presents can be returned (from 30 to 45 days after Christmas) giving its reason as “a way of preventing agglomerations” in shops and malls”.
On Wednesday, the ECDC (European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control) said Christmas and how people celebrate it will depend on the measures countries take between now and then.
Bruno Ciancio, director of the ECDC’s vigilance department, told Lusa that if countries “are able to revert” the tendency of spiralling infections, “we will be able to have a good Christmas”. It won’t be one of “journeys around the world or large gatherings”, he said, but it could have some meaning, and be a moment of calm, but only “if we all manage to reduce the increase in infections”.
By NATASHA DONN