We will do whatever is necessary, pledges prime minister

With countries all over the world failing to contain the spread of new coronavirus Covid-19, Portugal was moving into the mitigation phase as we went to press on Wednesday. Health minister Marta Temido told reporters early in the morning that it is “inevitable”.

As we went to press on Wednesday, it was highly likely that schools would close as of this Friday and remain shut possibly until April 3.

Decisions by experts on the national council of public health were due to be reported in time for the evening news as families, businesses, public authorities and services up and down the country wondered ‘what happens next?’.

In the space of one frighteningly event-packed week, Portugal had gone from no cases of Covid-19 to 61 – with thousands of people now in ‘isolation’ due to having had contact with infected victims, two northern boroughs in effective lockdown, and as many as 80 possible cases still awaiting the confirmation of tests.

Schools up and down the country have closed after pupils tested positive, universities have stopped giving lectures for the same reasons, events have been cancelled across the board, and although coastal towns are buzzing with tourists, outlying areas have noticed an acute drop-off in numbers.

Various regional hoteliers told us on Wednesday that ‘group bookings’ (particularly for events) have formed the majority of cancellations, while Easter bookings are still (at least for now) looking healthy.

The fear is that bookings “could be cancelled at the last minute if flights to the Algarve become affected” – and this certainly looks possible.

On Tuesday, prime minister António Costa said it wasn’t only the closure of schools that is on the table. Frontiers, too, may have to come down as the numbers spiral upward. Warnings from medical staff in Italy along the lines of “learn from what has happened here and act now” have only served to heighten the sense of urgency.

This virus – which too many still confuse with flu – is showing a “very rapid evolution”, said health minister Marta Temido on Wednesday, admitting that among the unknowns is whether this country will have all the medical necessities, in the form of masks and protective equipment, required.

Respirators, for example. Will there be enough to go around if thousands reach the stage where they cannot breathe at the same time?

The 24-hour health ‘hotline’ destined as the first port of call for anyone suspecting themselves to have contracted the virus has been staggering to cope with the volume of calls, leaving so many people frustrated that they disconnect. This will now be ‘reinforced’, as retired doctors and nurses are also showing themselves willing to step in and become involved.

Monday saw over €5.3 billion wiped off the share value of Lisbon’s Stock Exchange while the President of the Republic voluntarily submitted himself for testing – along with the mandatory 14-day period of quarantine – because he’d had a fleeting connection with pupils in a school in which one child has tested positive.

From some angles, the mounting hysteria has been viewed as ‘ridiculous’; from others, people accept that Covid-19 threatens the most vulnerable in society and we should all act in unison to try and protect them. “Economies can bounce back, dead bodies can’t,” quipped a sage over social media – deftly separating those who care more about money and profits from those concerned with the human costs of this wildfire epidemic.

The Algarve, as we write, is the area least affected – although two schools in Portimão are already closed (where the first two victims were confirmed over the weekend) – along with libraries, museums, gymnasiums, sports halls and various other facilities, particularly in Portimão. Loulé, too, started a week-long ‘pause’ from ‘public attendance’ in its council outlets this week.

For expats watching this crisis careering we-know-not-where, any belief that ‘private health insurance’ might offer extra comfort if the disease is caught is misplaced.

A source for the Algarve’s HPA network stressed this is a situation where the State is in charge – and “almost all insurance policies have an exemption for pandemics”.

In other words, private hospitals may be willing – and even ready – to step in with beds and expertise, but for now the frontline are 10 handpicked SNS state facilities, most of them in the north and Lisbon areas.

Shortly after the Algarve’s first victims were revealed, the general directorate of health added Faro Hospital to the list of frontline hospitals.
At that point, the focus was still on ‘containment’.

All those who had had contact with the Algarve victims before last weekend are currently in 14-day isolation in their homes and regularly monitored.

Meantime, schools everywhere have been on tenterhooks, in permanent contact with health authorities to hear what, if anything, has to change.

State schools – forever struggling on low budgets – have actually started installing soap in containers in bathrooms and publishing contingency plans, while private schools have gone all out to make their pupils aware, and safe.

At Loulé’s small Eupheus School, with only 30 pupils, principal Penelope Best has implemented all the guidelines coming out of UK and is in constant communication with the Portuguese Ministry of Education and the general directorate of health.

As a result, she says “even the three-year-olds” at Eupheus now know all about Covid-19 and what they can do to stem its spread.

Handwashing to the rendition of Happy Birthday in both languages goes on at high volume at various points of the day and everything that cannot be disinfected has already been removed from the school.

Over a week ago, Ms Best met every pupil and their families as the school returned from its Carnival break, to check where they had been for their holidays and how much they knew of the gathering health risks.

One child had been to Italy. He is currently working from home on his iPad which is what all the others will be doing if schools are indeed given the order to close.

At Nobel International School Algarve, principal Mike Farrer has 850 pupils to worry about on two separate campuses.

He told us on Tuesday: “I have today written to parents to inform them of our decision to implement Stage Three of our Outbreak Decision Policy, which includes the final stages of setting up a “virtual” or online school which can be used in different phases of the school should a closure be necessary. We have cancelled all school trips, local sports competitions, events, field trips, visits and after-school activities, and are in daily communication with the Ministry of Health and Education.”

In other words, schools are ready and prepped … it’s just a question of whether everyone else is too.

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