As I noted in a previous article, I am not a public health expert. For updated facts about the coronavirus in Portugal, please visit the websites for the World Health Organization, Portugal’s Serviço Nacional de Saude (national health service—click the globe at the top right to switch to English), and for Portugal’s Direção-Geral de Saude (public health authority). The last of these is in Portuguese but includes numbers and maps.
But I live in Lisbon, I pay attention, and friends, family, and colleagues have been asking me about the situation. I’m not exactly on the ground—I am following public guidelines and staying home—but I’m in the middle of this, and here’s what I know today.
As of today, March 19, the DGS was reporting 785 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 6,061 suspected cases, 488 people awaiting results, 3 deaths, and 3 people who have recovered. There are 89 people in hospitals and 20 people in intensive care. Yesterday there were 642 confirmed cases, a number that was itself up 194 from the day before. Every region of the mainland, the Açores, and Madeira all have cases now.
Cases may jump if and when testing becomes more widespread, but so far Portugal has managed to avoid the explosive growth in cases that other European countries have been experiencing. That luck is unlikely to last, and even so, public health officials advise that the country has entered the phase of exponential growth. The government is getting increasingly serious.
The border with Spain was already virtually closed several days ago (open only to citizens returning home, essential workers and the delivery of goods). Because of other countries’ travel restrictions, flights in and out of Lisbon, Porto and Faro have been getting scarcer and scarcer, and then yesterday the European Union closed all of its external borders. Many borders within Europe are also closed, taking things back to a time before the European Union and the Schengen Agreement.
Yesterday the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, convened his council of advisors via videoconference, and last night, he announced that Portugal has officially entered a State of Emergency. He and other officials, including Prime Minister António Costa, are using strong language, declaring a “war” against the virus and asking all residents to contribute.
At this point, it is unclear precisely what that means. But while “stay at home and cancel everything” was already the strong advice a week ago, now the government have the power to enact new restrictions (such as forcing non-essential businesses to close) and new requirements (such as ensuring that the food supply chain continues to work) to make it so.
In Marcelo’s address, he emphasized the need to put public health above the economy and tourism. He also cautioned that this State of Emergency will not be a miracle that fixes everything in one minute, day or month. Portugal, it seems, is in for the long haul.
He stressed that although this State of Emergency—which is in effect until April 3—allows the government to enact rules that would in normal times be unconstitutional without getting his express permission for each one, it is not an interruption of democracy. Extreme times call for extreme measures.
To calm a country in which many citizens remember life under a strict dictatorship, he listed five reasons (I’ve translated from his Portuguese words) for the declaration:
In other words, what happened Wednesday night was a political statement. It was an announcement that this will be a time when the democracy will be using exceptional measures that it (democracy) has written for times of exceptional seriousness. He said it is not an interruption of democracy but, rather, democracy trying to stop the irreparable interruption of people’s lives.
Marcelo finished by saying that in this war, as in all others, there is a real enemy: invisible, insidious and therefore dangerous. This enemy is not the virus. It is discouragement, tiredness and fatigue. We have to fight it every day with resistance, solidarity and courage.
The execution of the State of Emergency is now in the hands of the council of ministers. Their first meeting is today. Nothing radical has changed yet, but we expect some serious measures to come in the coming days, day by day.
Some of the expectations from different sectors of society are:
· Restriction of movement (it looks like essential solo trips to the market or pharmacy, dog walking, and exercise will be allowed)
· Suspension of non-essential commerce
· Closure of restaurants (except for delivery and possibly takeaway)
· Ban on beach activities that involve groups of people
· Measures for economic relief and support for businesses affected by the outbreak
· Readiness of national defense to support hospitals and enforce regulations
To keep up to date with the exceptional measures, keep checking covid19estamoson.gov.pt. (Be warned that will get very specific, and so far it’s only in Portuguese.) The site also includes emergency contacts, news updates and other useful information.
Writer | Ann Abel Mar 19, 2020,12:51pm