Just nine months ago, Portugal was seen as a successful model in the battle against COVID-19, especially compared to neighboring Spain.
But in early 2021, with the country’s rate of new cases reaching the world’s highest relative to its population last week, and ambulances lining up outside Lisbon hospitals as its health service twists and turns under pressure. pressure is a very different story.
“The main hospitals are overloaded with patients and doctors,” Manuel Carvalho, director of one of Portugal’s largest dailies, Público, told Al Jazeera. “It’s increasingly impossible to take care of everyone who asks for help. Things are really bad and there is no sign of improvement. “
A record death toll from the pandemic was set every day last week, dropping from 152 on January 17 to 275 on January 24, while on Saturday 15,000 new cases were recorded in just 24 hours.
This is a far cry from the start of last year, when Portugal was the last country in Europe to register a case of COVID-19 on March 2.
Having quickly put containment measures in place, until May, when Spain’s contagions were peaking on a European scale, Portugal’s total contagion figures were sometimes only 10% of those of its neighbour.
A record number of cases are currently registered worldwide and, like so many other countries, Portugal is suffering from pandemic fatigue. Authorities are tightening restrictions after estimating that only 30% of the population obeyed social distancing rules.
However, Francisco Miranda Rodrigues, president of one of the main Portuguese associations of mental health professionals, Ordem dos Psicólogos Portugueses (OPP), said: “It is a complex cocktail of causes, perhaps unique in Portugal.
“Twenty percent of our population lives in poverty or social exclusion, a very large number, and after such a long pandemic their limited resources have been exhausted. As a result, their ability to follow [the lockdown] the rules went up in smoke.
Furthermore, compared to the government’s clear instructions last year, he believes that some Portuguese have been baffled by the much more mixed messages from the authorities recently.
“In the beginning, it was easy to say ‘stay home’ to everyone, bar none, and that was it. But when the restrictions eased, we needed some high-risk groups to return to work, so we had to tell them they could go back if they were careful, ”said Miranda Rodrigues.
“At the same time, when you talk to teenagers, you want them to be a little more scared. [But] then you tell the elderly to stay at home, while the others can go to the movies: it’s confusing.
Another important factor, argues Miranda Rodrigues, is the chronic lack of psychological support networks within the public health system, with only 2.5 mental health professionals per 100,000 inhabitants.
“When a difficult situation lasts for months and months, more and more people are vulnerable,” he said.
“When the pandemic began, a special hotline providing nationwide psychological help was set up, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“But this was to act as a quick fix, as more structured psychological support programs were created. Unfortunately, this did not happen.
Seen from across the border, Guillermo Martínez de Tejada, professor of microbiology and parasitology at the University of Navarre in northern Spain, believes Portugal may have “let its guard down” after such early success.
“That first win probably made them overconfident and the virus ended up going wild. They found themselves in a trap, ”said Miranda Rodrigues.
Maria Antónia Duarte Silva, a teacher and lifelong Lisbon resident, said: “In March, people here were really scared, we didn’t know what was going on. We were able to see the damage caused by COVID-19 nearby, first in Italy and then even closer to Spain. So when the government said “stay home,” people obeyed.
“But people are tired now. When the second lockdown started I went to the supermarket and it was like COVID didn’t exist. It is as if the population does not want to accept what is happening.
The consequences, however, are tragic, as the country’s medical system faces near collapse in some areas.
As a doctor from one of Portugal’s largest hospitals told Al Jazeera: “Until recently, I worked in a little paradise. But the past three weeks have been terrible.
Requesting anonymity, she cited recent heartbreaking cases caused by the medical crisis, such as a patient in central Portugal hemorrhaging gallons of blood after being forced to wait several hours for an ambulance.
There is also talk among colleagues of a hospital that temporarily lacks oxygen, another lack of “a minimum of protective equipment”.
“And,” she added, “these are not isolated incidents.”
With about a quarter of her medical team now infected with COVID-19, she told Al Jazeera that the internal organization is making the situation seriously worse, with pathologists, laboratory doctors and psychologists being forced to work in units of overwhelmed intensive care rather than staff with more appropriate skills.
“We could have been much more prepared for this second time. But there is no comprehensive emergency plan, ”she said.
Politically, in Sunday’s presidential elections, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa was re-elected with 60.7% of the vote.
The elections were held despite the pandemic, in part because any date change would have required overly complex legal changes to the country’s constitution.
However, a dramatic increase in votes for the far-right Chega party, from 1.3% in the last general election to 11.9% on Sunday, was perhaps a warning sign that the Portuguese population is deeply troubled by the current difficult situation in the country.
When asked ahead of the election if he expected a big protest vote on Sunday, Miranda Rodrigues said: “If I feel very tired and need answers, then the hate speech that blaming third parties as exclusively responsible for everything becomes very interesting. It’s a popular story, all over the world the ground is now more conducive to its growth. And here in Portugal too.