Wednesday saw the well-worked government message that ‘everything is under control’ in the national fight against Covid-19 start to unravel. The presidents of the associations of doctors, nurses and pharmacists were reported to be writing in unison to prime minister António Costa, accusing him of lying on primetime television over the country’s preparedness to tackle the virus.
The furore kicked off after Mr Costa told two interviewers on Monday night that “there is no lack of anything (in the way of medical supplies and materials) and nothing to say that there will be”.
He insisted: “In the worst of scenarios, with the capacity that we have, we will never lose control of the situation.” In short, the health service was in no danger whatsoever of collapse.
For a country forced into repressive lockdown – with many self-employed falling through the cracks of State help announced – these were the words people needed to hear.
But, according to those on the frontline, they were lies.
Says Expresso, “apart from saying the prime minister was not telling the truth, they (the presidents of the associations of doctors, nurses and pharmacists) are particularly unhappy because they have to provide care on a daily basis without the necessary protective equipment – the exact equipment that has been constantly promised but never actually gets to the hospitals”.
Health professionals’ anger follows the pledge, early on in this fight, by President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa that “no one will be lying to anyone. This is the guarantee of your President of the Republic”.
Elsewhere, other papers carried similar stories of ‘unease’ in the face of government assurances.
Tabloid Correio da Manhã published an opinion poll showing 79.9% of Portuguese did not believe their hospitals were ready to deal with this galloping crisis.
In parliament, Mr Costa did a sterling job on Tuesday listing all the material purchased, the new health professionals hired and combat measures in place, but – according to Expresso – “reports on the ground do not coincide with the PM’s declaration. Technicians, nurses and doctors within INEM (the national institute of emergency medicine) are without necessary protective equipment when they go to the assistance of the population. Several teams throughout the country have only received two protective caps and six paper masks, which don’t offer adequate protection against the new coronavirus.
“The situation is so serious that some hospitals are already calling for ambulances to stay put when there are called out to emergencies.
“This is far from being the only shortcoming. On Monday, the doctors association called on all entities that have protective equipment like masks, visors and gloves – whether they are factories or garages connected to the automobile industry – to give them up to health professionals to cover stock problems that exist in the hospitals.
“The nurses association has also denounced the ‘flagrant’ lack of equipment for personal protection,” says the paper, stressing that on Sunday association president Ana Rita Cavaco described how nurses were actually using diving masks that they brought into work from their own homes to protect themselves at work.
The lack of masks is also an issue in the network of ‘continuous care’ homes (that are taking many of the more stable patients in order to leave hospital beds for the more critical) as well as in old people’s homes.
Linha SNS24 – the 24-hour ‘hotline’ designed to answer queries from people showing symptoms – continues under fire for not functioning properly. Ditto the Linha de Apoio ao Médico, designed for doctors to be able to record patient symptoms as a way of validating suspicious cases.
With Tuesday’s press briefing on latest numbers descending into farce as the numbers of fatalities kept changing, the nation’s sense of confidence on Wednesday was taking a pasting.
Testing is not being done fast enough, say many, which has led the government to update its strategy and agree that anyone exhibiting a dry cough and fever should now automatically qualify for a test.
Test facilities are being established throughout the country – and if the prime minister is to be believed, there is no shortage of testing equipment.
As to numbers, these are still well below the situation in neighbouring Spain but in dangerous territory due to clear evidence now of ‘community transmission’.
Mr Costa stressed in the Monday night interview that ‘pain is inevitable’ as Covid-19 has created an economic ‘tsunami’.
But notwithstanding various government measures put into place – and the assurance by banks that mortgage and loan repayments can be delayed by up to six months – there are still people whose lives will be indelibly affected by this crisis, even if they are lucky enough to stay physically healthy.
Business leaders present series of measures to (truly) protect economy and family incomes
In this context, AEP – the business association of Portugal – has presented the government with what it believes needs to be done to properly protect the economy and thus save family incomes.
The issue remains that although government leaders have called for businesses to maintain their workers, many simply cannot afford to.
Padaria Portuguesa, a chain of bakeries, has written to economy minister Pedro Siza Vieira, for example, explaining: “My team and I, with our lawyers and in conversation with other players in the market, have been analysing the packet of measures approved by the government to help businesses in this critical time”. The “sad conclusion” is that they are a “handful of nothing”; measures that are incapable of offering solutions in the short term.
Thus, AEP wants:
● the cancelling of all taxes and social security contributions (not simply their suspension)
● unlimited lines of finance to be offered to all sectors
● lay-offs that involve no costs to businesses
● reduced costs all round, including suspension of any requirement to pay motorway tolls
● immediate payment by the State of any monies owed to private suppliers
● instant approval of projects under the Portugal 2020 umbrella (which would then receive funding from the EU)
● Instant implementation of all measures to protect businesses, “without bureaucracy”
● A suspension of the need to be judged by national ratings agencies
● Strong support for testing (for the virus) across the board.
How these demands will be massaged into a government position remains to be seen, but Wednesday was not a good day in the country’s extraordinary effort and obvious sacrifices to get through this hiatus.
News, as we wrote this text, from Spain was that the number of deaths there have now exceeded those recorded in China.
With the best will in the world – and with all the help offered from the private sector, from hotels prepared to take people in quarantine, from organisations and associations – tsunamis are generally unstoppable.
By NATASHA DONN