As with most European countries, Portugal is slowly and cautiously edging out of lockdown. We've gone from a State of Emergency to a Calamity (actually one step down) while resuming some of the activities of everyday life. So what has it been like? Let's take a look at how this country of 10.3 million souls has coped during this pandemic.
Frankly, it's been damned reassuring. We have no doubt that Portugal has screwed up some things along the way, and certainly their economy has taken a massive hit, but the bottom line is that the efforts to contain the virus appear to have worked. Porto hasn't reported any confirmed cases in about 10 days (note these are *confirmed* cases) but Lisbon and areas south are still showing new cases each day. Because of this Portugal is now applying lockdown rules regionally, rather than countrywide.
The various political parties agreed to shelf partisan politics during this period, a move that we know our fellow Americans will envy. Charities have stepped up efforts to help the poor who are now suffering even more as jobs have vanished. The government has offered monies to keep businesses afloat and employees on their payrolls as best they can. Cities have been very forward in mitigating the virus's spread. At the heart of this effort the health service has been putting out daily reports so everyone can track the status of how many are ill, how many have died, the total number of COVID-19 patients in the hospitals and ICUs. The reports been posted online from the first of March so there's quite a body of data here.
The Portuguese love their beaches, so each one's occupancy will be monitored and the public can determine how crowded they are based on an app. Rules are in effect requiring masks in stores, banks, and on mass transit (including rideshares like Uber and Bolt). We're seeing about 40-50% mask usage on the streets at the moment and most people seem to be social distancing from their neighbors. Small shops reopened at the beginning of May, including hairdressers and nail salons. Malls, churches, museums are now open, but again with strict rules in place as to distancing, mask and hand sanitizer use.
What we found surprising was that at the point where Portugal was gradually re-opening, our home state of Georgia was doing the same, though they were nowhere near the same point on the viral curve that we were. Georgia's population is about the same size as ours (10.61 million vs Portugal's 10.28 million), so that made for a relative easy comparison per 100K population for cases and, unfortunately, deaths.
Portugal has lost 1523 souls to date (14.82/100K) while Georgia's losses stand at 2529 (23.83/100K). Comparing death tolls is tricky as it appears that African-Americans, Latinx and Hispanics have a higher mortality rate from the virus, and Georgia has a sizable population of all three. Still, that's 9 more deaths per 100K people which is truly heartbreaking.
To date, Georgia has conducted 627K COVID-19 tests while Portugal has now done over 1 million. The Portuguese government is immensely proud of that number, as they should be in a country this size. They've tested nearly all the senior care homes and isolate those folks who show positive for the disease, including those in the general population.
The reason they were so proactive is because this country has the smallest number of acute care beds in Europe (4.2/100K) vs. Germany's 29.2. The average across Europe is 11.5 so one of the newly stated goals of the government is to up our acute care bed numbers to more match our European neighbors. They knew that if they didn't get a handle on the virus right up front, the entire health system might collapse.
Going forward will require weighing the risk of a viral spike against rebuilding the damaged economy. On our first exercise-type walk last Sunday we noted a number of shops in our neighborhood with papered-over windows, victims of the pandemic. Portugal had begun to make significant gains after bottoming out in the 2008 depression and now they have to rebuild again. We have no doubt they'll do it, but that will require tourists returning sooner, rather than later.
They've established a voluntary program that certifies that hotels, various other forms of lodging, restaurants, etc. are complying with health and safety rules geared toward the virus. A special decal is displayed at the certified business to reassure their patrons.
Again, more personal and nationwide risk weighed against the economic well-being of the country. Prudent decisions need to be made and we are following the news in both Georgia and Portugal with fingers crossed.
Harold is a former software engineer. Jana is an author. Together they're exploring their new life in Portugal.