March 2, 2021

Why is the coronavirus having such an impact in Portugal in recent weeks?


There has been a lot of good news about COVID-19 vaccines in recent weeks, but in the meantime the pandemic continues to accelerate its spread around the world. Europe accumulates the 34% of new cases globally, and there is one specific European country where it is having a huge impact: Portugal.

The coronavirus, in data: maps and graphs of the evolution of cases in Spain and the world

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If we look at the data for the last two weeks, Portugal has the highest rates both cases (16,829 per million inhabitants) and deaths (340 per million inhabitants). These figures exceed by a wide margin those of the United Kingdom (6,480 cases and 250 deaths) and those of the United States (6,920 cases and 131 deaths). And the neighboring country, Spain, also has lower figures (10,500 cases and 107 deaths per million inhabitants).

About half of the deaths from coronavirus that Portugal has carried since the start of the pandemic were registered in January, and the country’s health system is on the verge of collapse. Many European countries, including Germany or Austria, are taking steps to support it.

Early success

This is an unfortunate turnaround for a country that handled the situation very well during the early stages of the pandemic. Portugal took measures swiftly, including the imposition of a total national confinement when there was barely a record of a few hundred cases throughout the country (on the contrary, Spain did not take that measure until the number of cases registered in its territory reached many thousands).

One factor that may have contributed to the recent increase in cases could have been the relaxation of restrictions, which has led people to get together more. And it is that, when there is a structural minimum of infected, it is inevitable that there will be an increase in cases.

It is noteworthy that this upward trajectory of the curve points to the increase in gatherings that took place during the Christmas holidays. On December 28, Portugal’s case rate was 4,484 cases per million inhabitants, its lowest value in recent times and around a quarter of the rate it has now, a month later. These increases would therefore reflect the transmission that would have occurred during the holidays.

Thus, Christmas was an accident that was a matter of time before it occurred.

The perfect Storm

During the last few weeks detected in Portugal more and more cases of the so-called “British variant” (B117). This circumstance could be added to the rest of the factors that, taken together, have generated a perfect storm; a storm that is causing the unprecedented figures that we now witness. The British variant is more contagious, Y maybe also more lethal.

To add to the misfortune, the healthcare system suffers from extreme staff shortages due to 23,000 doctors have tested positive for COVID-19. According to data from the World Bank, in Portugal there are five doctors for every 1,000 inhabitants; and if we take into account that the country’s population is around 10 million people, this means that Portugal has an approximate number of 50,000 doctors. Thus, the report shows that almost half of the country’s doctors have been infected with coronavirus. If this were true, we would be facing an incredible number.

It is very difficult to establish direct comparisons between data from different countries because each one handles its own time periods, different sample sizes, etc. However, if we make a limited comparison with the UK data, we find that according to the Office for National Statistics, last july Only 1.6% of British health workers who had direct contact with infected tested positive. However, Portuguese hospitals have historically been places with a great disease transmission compared to hospitals in other rich countries. Perhaps now, in this moment of the pandemic, we are verifying the consequences of this circumstance.

On January 15, Portugal decreed another national confinement, which has implied the closure of establishments considered non-essential such as gyms, hairdressers or museums. This measure should very soon translate into a reduction in the daily number of cases.

There are certain limited restrictions affecting international travel. For example, Portugal and the United Kingdom have suspended flights between the two countries and both governments observe with mutual distrust the number of cases of the other. However, flights from Portugal with other destinations are being maintained without too many restrictions, increasing the risk of new cases being imported (and probably also possible new variants).

Most likely, these cases are few, but it is no less true that if COVID-19 reached all corners of the world in just a few months it was because the disease spread in each country from a handful of imported cases. In my opinion, we have reached a point where this represents a risk, so that all travelers who arrive at a destination other than their place of residence should be quarantined.

In Portugal the proactive approach at the beginning of the pandemic appears to have turned into a reactive approach in recent weeks. The vaccination process proceeds slowly, and, when the curve is allowed to continue to grow, then it is very difficult to overtake the virus again.

The Conversation

East Article was originally published in The Conversation. You can read it here.

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