New Year message

For this feature, I thought I would give a personal view of the challenges we at Safe Communities Portugal have faced with this crisis over the last year and how we have dealt with them.

No one can ever prepare for a situation such as Covid-19, but at Safe Communities we have, over the last three years or so, established our building blocks through qualifying and becoming the only Civil Protection Voluntary Organisation under Portuguese law serving the international community in Portugal.
This is much more than just a title, but instead an organisation, recognised officially by the government, which helps communities in areas such as rural fires, crime prevention, cybercrime and, more recently, Covid-19.

How we serve you
Our Facebook page is, in many ways, the “shop window” of our organisation and when you enter, you see the full array of services we offer, which are displayed on our website.

When we started monitoring Covid-19 on January 26, 2020, we needed extra space, so we enlarged our site, creating a section for Covid-19, which has expanded considerably over the last 10 months.

Customer services are vital and so is effective communication during a crisis. Although we use radio (thanks to Kiss Fm), newsletters, written and online media and magazines in getting key messages across, our main communication tool during this crisis has been through Facebook. Responding to questions and comments, quickly where possible, with the correct answers has been perhaps the greatest challenge we have had to face.

Keeping positive
Often, we receive enquiries from people who are worried and sometimes fearful of what lays ahead. This is a natural reaction when facing the unknown and it is, therefore, important to try and allay those fears whenever possible. This is why negativity in a crisis is never helpful, as is spreading disinformation, which we have encountered from time to time.

Working on facts, not supposition and hearsay, is important so people are kept properly informed.

As a proactive measure to encourage positivity and at the same time put a smile on people’s faces, we created “SCooP”, the Pug dog, who supplements the delivery of information and advice in a less formal style.

We also created a “Positive Messages” page on our website, which contains comments from you that have appeared on our Facebook page and other sources. Please take a look at these from time to time and it will help lift your spirits during the darker days.

Questions and answers
In many ways, we are the “first line” (similar to a call centre) for many in obtaining the answers and clarification required. We receive enquires in many forms of media, particularly through our Facebook page.

Helping so many people, as we have tried to do over a period of nearly a year, is, to say the least, demanding. Faced with many new laws, sometimes amounting to 30 or so pages in Portuguese, can be daunting and has presented considerable challenges in deciphering what is important, so the foreign community and tourists are kept informed.

A few incorrect words can send everyone in the wrong direction very quickly! Also, naturally, people require and deserve answers to questions, and although we may not have these at hand at the time, we are able to liaise closely with the government, the police, tourism board, civil protection, embassies and other authorities to try and ascertain these where we can.
In this respect, I send special thanks to the British Embassy Consular team whom we liaise with virtually on a daily basis and our contact points with the GNR and PSP.

The Portuguese government
We work on the basis and belief that the Portuguese government has done an amazing job in dealing with what was at the beginning a “faceless and unknown” enemy. It is important that we have trust in the government to make the right decisions, at the right time, based on the scientific evidence available.
Personally, I feel that this has been amply demonstrated from the President and Prime Minister downwards with timely and effective laws and initiatives, in the absence of which many more lives would have been lost.

We have a fantastic national health service (SNS) in Portugal, well led by the DGS director and health minister, and our gratitude goes to all the nurses and doctors and health workers, and others who are certainly on the front line in dealing with this pandemic.

Laws are, of course, meaningless without compliance, and I feel we are privileged to live in a country where the population have generally followed the rules closely throughout the pandemic, often with great hardship to themselves and families. I believe that the actions of the population are one of the reasons why Portugal has suffered less than certain other countries in Europe.

Turning the corner
We have now turned a new corner in the fight against Covid-19 with the implementation of the vaccine programme which started on December 27. The government has a well-prepared vaccination plan, supported by a dedicated page on the DGS website, and even a simulator where people can ascertain approximately when they will be vaccinated.

There is clearly a well-defined structure in terms of priorities, supply, logistics and distribution of the vaccine and now we just have to wait our turn. Of course, we are all dependent on the supply by the manufacturers with Portugal having on order 22 million doses.

So, with that positive note, I would like to thank you for all your support and to wish you, on behalf of our team at Safe Communities, a very happy new year. Stay safe everyone.

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.
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