Photo: Inês Lopes/Open Media Group

‘Portugal woke up beautiful’ – President Marcelo

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has hailed this week as the moment Portugal ‘woke up beautiful’: another 650,000 children returned to schools up and down the country, cafés and restaurants were finally allowed to welcome clients on their terraces (“esplanadas”) – and local commerce got the
green-light to reopen.

Yes, there are storm clouds ‘everywhere you care to look’, but the sun has been allowed to shine through. If people want to turn a deaf ear to all the talk about ‘rising Rt’, the reality right now is that intensive care units are far from overrun; there is proof at last that the vaccine roll-out among the vulnerable and elderly has stopped the relentless stream of hospital admissions and the ‘national active case count’ is down to less than 26,000 people.

In a country of 10.2 million, that works out at 0.2% being ‘infected’ – and of those 26,000 ‘infected people’, only a little over 500 are requiring treatment in hospitals (again, a tiny percentage).

As President Marcelo said, in its own way this week is “historic”. It’s a “turn of the page that we all hope won’t have to be turned back…”

In coastal towns, the joy of once again ‘going out for a cup of coffee’, eating a ‘tosta mista’ on the way to work, the ability to chat again with all the people one used to chat to, is palpable.

Perhaps if Covid-19 has taught people anything, it is the value of the ‘little things’.

But the delight of this second phase of reopening has been tinged with uncertainty. Indeed, Wednesday even saw stories in the press suggesting restaurateurs were ‘upset’ that clients weren’t wearing masks on terraces ‘when they weren’t eating’. This was most certainly ‘an official story’ – attributed to the Pro.Var association of restaurateurs. In the Algarve, for example, it would be hard to find a café/restaurant owner concerned about clients not wearing masks. They are simply happy to be able to work again – although the situation is still far from ideal.

Said João Guerreiro, head of the association of businesspeople in Quarteira and Vilamoura, “(café/restaurant) terraces were full on Monday, but it’s still a measure that is insufficient” for the simple reason that most businesses have more tables ‘inside’ and, therefore, cannot make ends meet until the ability to function moves to the next step.

And this is where the storm clouds suddenly block out the early spring sunshine. There are no certainties of the ‘next step’: albeit scheduled to begin on April 19.

April 19 is when, in theory, businesses can finally return to some semblance of normality: restaurants returning to having diners inside the premises (albeit still with restrictions on timetables); shops and malls reopening; outdoor events resuming, along with cinemas, theatres, auditoria and similar.

This is where the Rt comes back to haunt us: according to the authorities’ ‘matrix of risk’, the Rt (transmission indicator) is increasing and is now over the ‘red line’ established of 1. What this means is that, theoretically, the virus could spiral out of control once again.

Combine this with the other principal risk indicator ‘incidence’, and Portugal has 26 boroughs that are deemed ‘at risk’, due to having more than 120 cases within them per 100,000 inhabitants.

Now, there are lots of ‘ifs and buts’ in this form of calculation. Many boroughs do not have 100,000 inhabitants. In other words, the formula involves multiplying numbers without looking at ‘situations’.

For example, the rural borough of Carregal do Sal (Viseu district) is one of the six areas with the highest risk ratio according to official figures. The DGS (national health authority) bulletin puts incidence at 302 cases per 100,000. But this is because the numbers have had to be multiplied massively to reach an imaginary plateau where 100,000 people inhabit the area. If you go to the official site of the municipality, you see the total number of people infected with Covid-19 in Carregal do Sal is just 12.

The official line is that Carregal do Sal and 25 other boroughs (all with differing situations and differing populations) may be considered too high risk to move forwards with step three of deconfinement.

The various mayors have been in discussions with prime minister António Costa, and the upshot of their virtual meeting seems to be that police will be ‘cracking down hard’ on checks of people going about their business until April 19 in the hope that this will stop transmission and allow the boroughs to move forwards with the rest of the country.

But no-one knows if this will work.

Meantime, the PM opened up a Pandora’s Box last week when he said ‘high-risk’ boroughs would not be the only ones liable for ‘particular measures’ if their incidence levels don’t improve. “The areas around them” will also be affected.

They were a small handful of words, but they took the 26 boroughs at risk of not moving forwards to over 80.

In the Algarve, the PM’s stipulation could mean half the region is stopped from moving forwards on April 19.

To explain, this is due to Vila do Bispo, Portimão, Lagoa and Albufeira being considered ‘boroughs where incidences of Covid-19 are unacceptable’.

Of these four, Portimão is considered ‘high risk’ because its incidence rate has been gauged as 308 cases per 100,000 (the government’s red line is 120 cases per 100,000).

Now, the surrounding areas of these four boroughs bring in Monchique, Aljezur, Lagos, Silves and Loulé. Indeed, Monchique can’t win either way as it is flanked in the north by the borough of Odemira, also running at ‘high risk’.

In other words, this ‘new beautiful spring’ full of hope and ‘tostas mistas’ in the sunshine is as fragile as the future has always been.

But somehow now we have all been made to believe the future should have answers.

Portugal meets vaccine targets when “majority of countries have failed”
This is the ‘good news’ of the week which the storm clouds and general press focus on numbers has failed to trumpet from the rooftops: Portugal has actually met its vaccination targets. The results are there for everyone to see. Old people are no longer getting sick and filing into hospital. Say reports, “the number of contagions and fatalities have fallen abruptly” to the point that cases, and even deaths, appearing in the over-70s are down to 0.9% of totals.

Says Expresso, due to all the hiccups in supply chains, the majority of EU countries have not managed to comply with the objective of having at least 80% of the elderly (over the age of 80) and 80% of health professionals vaccinated by the end of March. Portugal, however, has: 84.3% of the elderly population has received at least a first dose and health professionals should have all been fully vaccinated by Sunday (April 11).

Portugal, therefore, is holding its own, with vaccine task force coordinator and vice admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo doing a sterling job in his army fatigues, marshalling his troops with the least media fuss possible.

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