Contagion: why the Portuguese ‘miracle’ appears to have come crashing down

In the space of a few short weeks in which the country has been slowly ‘reopening’, Portugal’s image as ‘an example of how to deal with the pandemic’ appears to have come crashing down.

Early on, we basked in praise that labelled us ‘a miracle’ (click here) – and in terms of deaths, we’re still doing incredibly well.

But infections are suddenly coming in thick and fast – to the point that ‘other countries’ opening up to foreign travel have put Portugal on their ‘blacklists’.

Weeks ago we were assured an ‘air bridge’ with the UK (an agreement that would see Brits holidaying in Portugal without the need for quarantine when they returned home). That is now looking less likely as international media focuses on ‘levels of infection’ per 100,000 inhabitants – today up to 23%.

The fact that politicians insist these ‘high numbers’ come from Portugal’s exemplary level of testing appears not to have impressed anyone.

But what keeps falling through the cracks in the narrative is the reality that most of these new infections are asymptomatic.

In the words of Lagos’ social media commentator and former specialist in catastrophe medicine Dr Lourdes Cerol Bandeira: “We think these people must be sick but before taking the test they were perfectly healthy and happy. Since taking the test their happiness has disappeared, fear has become installed and doubt taken the place of confidence and tranquility.

“The presence of so many asymptomatic positives is because this virus has an endemic tendency. It is with us and it will stay with us”, she insists.

Needless to say, daytime television has been debating ‘what has gone wrong?’ while tabloid Correio da Manhã has devoted a double-page spread to what it believes have been all the institutional failings – starting with ‘nothing having been done to increase transports’, particularly in the capital.

This has meant that people going to work are forced to pile into packed buses and trains, with no chance of physical distancing.

Mayors in and around the capital are particularly critical of the transport failings.

As a result, prime minister Costa brought in a whole slew of new ‘get tough’ measures on Monday – some of which appear ‘misguided’ in that they involve fining people who almost certainly won’t have the wherewithal to pay.

“I don’t know where this situation is going”, writes Dr Bandeira, stressing that people are not totally to blame for the contagion.

“I fear for our liberty”, she writes. “Under the cloak of a pandemic repression is emerging, along with a ‘new police force’ that watches everything we do (will they start using their truncheons to disperse young people who come together in groups?).

“At risk groups should have been doubly protected during the reopening period. But in many institutions they weren’t – and this is why infections are back in old people’s homes and people are dying.

“Lamentably the IPO (cancer hospital in Lisbon) was infected. Lives have been lost and patients who turned up for treatment have returned home ‘infected’, as has happened in Monchique.”

Correio da Manhã describes “erratic policies… full of rules and exceptions that citizens don’t understand”.

“In the end” (meaning, after all the political promises) “masks were not distributed, transports were not increased, there was no emergency plan for old people’s homes, no rigorous control of ports or airports”, says the paper.

Just like Dr Bandeira, CM’s mindset is that the only way forwards is to “live with the virus…with a mask and disinfectant, but without fear”.

Dr Bandeira explains, “it’s impossible to eradicate a virus that exists in an asymptomatic population.”

And in her professional opinion – one shared by virologist Dr Pedro Simas who regularly appears on national television – the virus is most definitely ‘softening’ and showing a substantially reduced rate of lethality.

In the end, the way forwards will be to protect the most vulnerable – the old and the sick – and get on with it.