OPINION: Covid-19: Europe relaxes but authorities in Portugal agitate

Rt at 1.7 – “6th wave beginning”. “Masks fell too soon”

Wednesday sees a new undercurrent gathering force in Portugal. The last few days have seen multiple soundbites warning of ‘increasing infections’ of SARS-CoV-2. Today IST (the superior technical institute) has upped the ante, saying that what it considers to be an “excess of contagions” leading to an Rt of 1.7 can be blamed on “elimination of the use of masks” in most indoor settings.

“The possibility of a sixth wave is shaping up very intensely”, says a report from the pandemic working group ‘to which Lusa has had access’.

And thus the generalised return to negative messaging – to what end we can but surmise.

Taking some thunder out of today’s ‘foreboding’ is the fact that Europe’s Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) and the centre for disease prevention and control (ECDC) have “informed” that from next Monday (May 16), masks will no longer be obligatory in airports and on European flights.

The press announcement cites EASA executive director Patrick Ky saying It is a relief to all of us that we are finally reaching a stage in the pandemic where we can start to relax the health safety measures. For many passengers, and also aircrew members, there is a strong desire for masks to no longer be a mandatory part of air travel. We are now at the start of that process. 

The simple truth is that infections may be ‘excessive’; they may indeed have increased due to fewer people wearing masks – but they are a) not killing people, b) not sending droves into hospitals, and c) leading to further group immunity.

For all the hype made of 1,022 people flooding a Porto A&E department earlier this week, only 53 of these tested positive for Covid infection, and only TWO were admitted to hospital.

The rising Rt rate however has been seized on by IST specialists Henrique Oliveira, Pedro Amaral, José Rui Figueira and Ana Serro, who make up the working group coordinated by IST president Rogério Colaço. They warn “the current situation is of increasing pandemic danger compared to the earlier report of April 19…”

As journalists, we know how our readers feel about these stories: many appear to be  bored stiff with them. Uploaded onto social media, texts often receive ‘laughing faces’ and general expletives about ‘getting a life’. Of course, readers are not experts. But they are a good gauge on how people feel.

If one looks ‘further afield’, ‘pandemic experts’ in other countries no longer hold their populations’ attentions.

In UK for example, the experts were recently given knighthoods and have since ‘disappeared from sight’. Radio stations have discussed how their predicted ‘worse case scenarios’ never transpired, and how much of the fear fanned was counterproductive and over-the-top. 

Radio stations and other media outlets in Portugal haven’t reached this point, which is possibly why the messaging is still in the hands of the nation’s experts.

Observador today describes how mathematician Henrique Oliveira “criticises the way liberation from the use of the mask happened, but also stresses there is no tragedy on the horizon”.

The real question has to be ‘why are these experts still producing their reports?’ It is quite clear that even with rising infections, deaths (invariably in the very old and the immunocompromised) are slowly reducing to the exceptionally low level set of 20 in a million inhabitants. On February 6, daily deaths on average over a seven day period were 20.9. They have now come down to 20.3.

We were told months ago that once Covid deaths hit 20 (in a million inhabitants) all restrictions would be dropped. Thus there seems little point in current headlines. We are nearly there.

Yet the IST working group has even criticised the DGS health authority for presenting data on Fridays relating to the previous Monday, saying this “constitutes a deficit of information for the public and the medical and scientific community which precludes prevention and the taking of measures by services”.

It may be that what is needed is a rush of presidential honours to see the situation put into a more positive perspective.

natash[email protected]