Portugal “on a knife edge”

Over the weekend, President Marcelo “guaranteed Portugal would not go back into lockdown”. The feelgood assurance was quickly overridden by experts in public health and the prime minister himself – and the worst of it is that conflicting messages right now are just as likely to tip the balance in terms of risk as the wildly spiralling case numbers in Greater Lisbon…

In the words of public health specialist Bernardo Mateiro Gomes, “we are in the porcelain phase in terms of communication of risk”. “A knife edge”. Giving out assurances (no matter how much they may be wanted) and then seeing them shot down is “everything that should not be happening at this moment”.

The situation in Lisbon and Vale do Tejo is “not under control” and everything points to positive case numbers increasing even further.

Yes, in terms of hospitalisations, the country is still ‘in a good place’. Areas like the Algarve, for example, are as Covid-clear as you could hope for in a pandemic. But these things can change very fast – particularly with the explosion of the Delta variant, and summer ‘staycations’ on the horizon.

Then, of course, there is the already witnessed possibility that people with both shots of vaccine can end up contracting Covid-19 and needing treatment in hospital.

“This is not about trying to instill fear,” Tiago Correia, a specialist in international public health at the Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine at the New University of Lisbon told Expresso on Tuesday. “It is about simply recognising there are signs that if numbers continue the way they are going, the situation is likely to deteriorate.”

This means “concerns over health professionals” will return (these people have been working under extreme stress for too long now) and people “who thought they were protected could still contract the disease”.

With the country going all-out to attain group protection (herd immunity), “the worst thing that could happen is to open gaps that cause fear; that cause more uncertainty over the success of the vaccination programme and generate all this noise”.

Without realising it, the specialist himself may have contributed to the uncertainty with his reference that people “who thought they were protected could in the end contract the disease”.

“We already have part of the most vulnerable population protected, but if other people relax, this can cause problems within the hospital system. The low probability of each one of younger individuals developing problems, multiplied by many cases, could increase pressure on hospitals” affecting ‘programmed activity’ once again, Mateiro Gomes added.

Echoing the view of mathematician Óscar Felgueiras – whose speciality lies in epidemiology (see story on page 4) – any future decisions on how to combat rising case numbers are likely to be political. They will have to balance the effects of pressure on the health service against those on Portugal’s economic and social recovery.

“And there’s more,” stresses Expresso. All this is happening just as schools prepare to close for the long, hot summer and families start thinking about summer breaks and gatherings at the beach/restaurants and in private homes.

“It’s very frustrating that we’re at such a critical, sensitive phase” in which we ‘could make headway in a short space of time’ but when in reality people are starting to relax, Tiago Correia told the paper.

Nationally, the media has focused on what it has sought to blow into a political ‘rift’ between the president and prime minister António Costa. Both have refuted this as best they can, saying they were simply responding to questions in their own ways. But the damage has been done.

Tiago Correia referred to the fact that the UK has made the decision to throttle back on its plan for ‘Freedom Day’ on June 21 (precisely because of rising case numbers) while countries like Chile and the Seychelles have seen exactly the same problem in spite of very high rates of vaccination.

Bottom line: Portugal’s vaccination programme – even though robust – is nowhere near as strong as either of the above territories, therefore “now is not the time to declare there is no going back”.

No-one wants to criticise the man who has done more to keep the national psyche from hitting rock bottom than anyone else in the public eye.

On a recent trip to Guinea Bissau, he was welcomed by throngs of unmasked people; in Madeira for the June 10 celebrations, the scenes were similar (though people wore masks). This is a head of State who dearly wants his countrymen and women to hold onto hope for the future and smile.

His words at an agricultural fair in Santarém were from the heart: “We’re not going back. It’s not a question of whether it can be, should be, or shouldn’t. It won’t be. It won’t be with me. In what depends on the President of the Republic, there is no going back…”

In all honesty, he was talking to the people, not to the television cameras.

The pity is that news reporting doesn’t differentiate. Anything ‘goes’ – which, in itself, adds to what Dr Matreiro Gomes terms “all the entropy”.

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