Espaço para doentes com covid-19, em Lisboa, 05 de fevereiro de 2021. ANTÓNIO COTRIM/LUSA

Mathematicians warn “We told you about Christmas. Listen to us now”

Spring is in the air. More than four million people were out and about at the weekend, yet almost a year on from Portugal’s first lockdown the country is still deeply ‘confined’ – with police liberally handing out fines for ‘noncompliance’ as a social and economic crisis of unimaginable proportions bubbles under the surface.

The country’s Socialist government is under massive pressure – to the point it has conceded that it could start slowly opening up in the second half of this month.

But the emphasis is on ‘slowly’.

Mathematicians who predicted the horrors that played out over New Year – largely due to a Christmas window with no restrictions – say it is imperative that they are listened to this time.

Indeed, they warn that if they aren’t, the country could be facing a fourth wave.

Talking to TVI24 in a kind of retrospective on ‘A Year with Covid’, mathematician Henrique Oliveira with the IST (superior technical institute) explained that forecasts compiled this far have all hit the right note.

It was Oliveira and two other colleagues who in March 2020 advised the government that if it locked the country down ‘then and there’, there would be less than 2,000 deaths in the first wave.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa declared a State of Emergency the day after Portugal suffered its first Covid fatality (on March 17, 2020), and the first wave did indeed conclude with less than 2,000 deaths.

But the country’s reopening, the influx of tourists during the summer – in short, our 21st century lifestyles – meant that as soon as the temperate weather ended and populations were thrown closer together and more ‘inside’ than out, the virus started to rip.

Mathematicians warned before Christmas that the government’s idea to give citizens four days to see their families and have a semblance of a normal gathering would bring an excess in mortality in January of at least 1,500.

“We told them that,” Oliveira told TVI. “But they didn’t listen.”

As President Marcelo and Prime Minister António Costa have since said in as many words, history will always repeat itself unless you try and learn from it. And that is what political leaders here, and indeed everywhere else, are trying to do.

Addressing the nation last Friday, Mr Costa conceded that he ‘understands’ the costs of all the government’s restrictions. “Like every one of you,” he said, he is anxious to see the country unlocked.

“But we have to be very careful. We cannot run risks.”

This perhaps is the Catch-22 no-one dares acknowledge: the risks will always be there.

As politicians have admitted, there may never be a time with ‘zero cases of Covid’. It is a disease we have to learn to live with, without seeing too many people die.

Said Mr Costa on Friday: “No one can guarantee that in the future there won’t exist new variants. We are on the trajectory of reducing new cases, hospital internments and deaths – but we have to persist over the next two weeks to consolidate and improve what we have already achieved. There is still a lot more to do … I don’t want to create any kind of illusion.”

Thus, the country is on tenterhooks waiting for a ‘magic date’ (next Thursday March 11) when the government will be outlining its plan for easing Portugal out of lockdown.

We know it will involve schools returning first – and we know the youngest age groups will be in the first cohort.

Henrique Oliveira and his colleagues ‘can’t see any problem with book shops reopening’ and possibly ‘the sale of non-alcoholic drinks from café windows’, but beyond that ‘nothing is clear’ – and very little can be offered to allay the rising panic of so many shackled businesses in the tourism and hospitality sectors.

‘Digital Green Pass’ mooted to reopen mobility across Europe
Meantime, European Commissioner Ursula Von der Leyen has presented Brussels’ latest idea for ‘reopening the circulation of citizens throughout the bloc’.

The Digital Green Pass will not be a ‘vaccination passport’ – for the simple reason Europe’s roll-out has been much too slow (in Portugal, for example, we have still not completed the ‘first phase’ involving key workers, the elderly and those with chronic diseases – and this country is actually slightly ahead of the European average for its vaccination roll-out).

“It will be a certificate that will give an account of each person in relation to the illness: if they have been sick, if they have been vaccinated or if they have done a PCR test,” stressed Europe justice commissioner Didier Reynders.

“We are continuing to work on a way of free circulation,” he said, guaranteeing “there will not be any discrimination in these certificates”.

“We want a legislative instrument that allows the same data to be collected on the same certificates issued by Europe. Then we will see what the possible uses for these certificates are.”

Bearing in mind the worth of a PCR test is not given much longer than 72-hours by most countries, there are huge concerns about the value of this aspect of the Digital Green Pass – and then of course there is the question over how long immunity conferred by the vaccines, or indeed natural infection, actually lasts.

Would a Digital Green Pass be valid for a week, a month, a year? Again, no one seems to know as this is simply the first year of living with a virus that is still not yet fully understood.

“We have to find other solutions” for future pandemics, says expert
What does seem to be understood is that lockdowns are not the answer – even though their implementation over the last year has been fundamental in curbing contagion and saving health services from rupture, they bring terrible social, not to mention economic, costs.

Said Henrique Oliveira, slightly stepping out of his area of expertise with TVI: “There are people without money. We have to … the State through European mechanisms will have to put money into society to resolve really difficult problems. It’s not up to us to come onto the television and say ‘confinement, confinement, confinement’. This doesn’t work. We have to find other solutions for other pandemics that may be coming in the future. I am sorry if I have said too much here…”

This last sentence perhaps alluding to the fact that the bottom line of this virus is that society may have to change its idea of how it operates in order to succeed in living with Covid-19.

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