By Eleanor Legge-Bourke
Portugal was hailed as a success story in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The reasons for the relatively controlled spread of the virus have been debated and vary, and whether it can still be deemed a success story, the Portuguese themselves are too cautious to confirm. As the world prepares itself for a seasonal uptake in cases worldwide in the coming months, how is Portugal faring with this first impact of COVID-19?
By 20 August, Portugal registered 1,786 COVID-19 related deaths, with 54,701 confirmed cases and 40,129 recoveries. The suburbs surrounding the capital city of Lisbon have been the problem areas, with people unable to follow social distancing rules with ease. But soon, the north, home to Portugal’s industrial base and to the city of Oporto, overtook the Lisbon region for the first time since the outbreak in numbers of new detected cases.
Portugal, home to 10.28 million people, is currently ranked 32nd globally in terms of deaths per million inhabitants. Portugal is the 6th worst hit country in Europe for confirmed infections per million inhabitants. But compared to the neighbouring Spain, France, the UK and Italy—among the top 11 worst-hit countries—Portugal has fared relatively well.
The reasons given in-country and abroad as pivotal in the relatively low number of deaths in Portugal are the speed with which the government announced a lockdown—Portugal declared a state of emergency on 18 March, two days after its first COVID-19 related death was reported; the unity between the coalition government of the socialist party and the communist party and the opposition party; the preparedness of primary care physicians (Portugal prides itself on its human resources); and the Portuguese people’s obedience to government directives. However, it might not be as simple as that.
Portugal’s geography proved helpful, having only one border, with Spain, which it closed on 16 March. The other factor is fear, not only of the virus but of the inevitable impending economic hardship, which kept the Portuguese attentive, suspicious and cautious. Citizens did not wait for the government to impose a lockdown to close their doors. This translated into relatively low numbers of cases and deaths, without requiring the use of excessive policing or the imposition of fines, as was seen in Spain, France and Italy. Economically speaking, a relatively high increase in savings was recorded as well as lower expenditure per household, believed to be due to the fear of loss of employment. For a country that was hit harder than most and later than most by the 2008 financial crisis and a population that is no stranger to austerity measures, the Portuguese are evidently bracing themselves for economic depression.
In March, the Portuguese Central Bank predicted GDP growth could retract by 5.7 percent in 2020 and one of the more pessimistic scenarios is of GDP retracting by 17 percent, with unemployment rates rising to 10 percent. The OECD expects the retraction of GDP to be as high as 11.3 percent in 2020. However, the unemployment rate in Portugal fell to 5.6 percent in the second quarter of 2020 from 6.7 percent in the first quarter, the eight lowest in the Eurozone.
What became obvious during the pandemic is that Portugal lacked critical-care beds, and that the country required better preparation and better management, particularly in the public healthcare system. In January, prior to the pandemic, national news reported that without the private sector, the public healthcare system would collapse.
Portugal’s universal healthcare system, largely based on the UK’s NHS, covered over 90 percent of the population in the 1980s and 1990s. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, three million citizens (or 40 percent of the population) were already resorting to some form of private health insurance. In February, private hospitals registered a total of 700,000 appointments, which lowered to 150,000 by April, a 75 percent drop in visits or appointments. A large proportion of non-COVID-19 related surgeries have either been called off entirely or been delayed. Here too fear is a factor. Over three million people were unable to visit their family doctors, nearly one million people did not see their hospital doctors and over 100,000 surgical operations were cancelled.
Data transparency is also an issue, whether political or organisational is yet to be determined. Data in Portugal is not geo-referenced in a way that can be used in the future. New public health models are required, as are real time data, artificial intelligence and blockchain, which will help improve efficiency and innovation in the country’s stifled healthcare industry.
With a significant number of Portuguese earning salaries close to the minimum wage, food insecurity was already a reality and the pandemic has likely worsened the situation. Abouy 10.1 percent of Portuguese families are already suffering from food insecurity (lacking food due to insufficient funds).
Portugal’s foreign relations with its neighbours, particularly Spain and the UK, have tensed in recent times. With the Spanish, quarrels over the communication and the date of the closing and reopening of the border were minor and quashed swiftly. With the UK, tensions are still high due to the British government’s announcement that its citizens are required to quarantine for 14 days upon return from Portugal specifically. The UK’s blacklisting of Portugal, where British tourists generated an estimated €3.3 billion last year alone, angered the Portuguese, although it has since been lifted. With infection rates now below the EU average, the Portuguese are left wondering how they could put their own fears aside for economic reasons, only to be singled out by their historical ally, the UK.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).