Consider Portugal

By Melissa

It’s a long story, but the long and short of it is that we bought an apartment in Portugal in May of 2019 with a plan of using it as a home base for European travel and that farther afield.  We left our full-time jobs and moved into the apartment in December of 2019.  We returned to the U.S. for what was to be a few months, Covid hit, the rest is history.

When Covid arrived in earnest, we were in Vail.  It was one of the nation’s first hot spots and it was really scary.  No one knew anything back then.  No one knew how the virus spread or why some people got so much sicker than others.  No one knew the long-term effects of mild illness.  No one knew how long it would all last.  Most of those questions are all still true today unfortunately, but, one way or another, we have all pivoted from the fear-based unity that occurred in the early days, to our own strategies for coping with a new, and perhaps in some ways permanent, reality.

When Covid hit, we were obviously very disappointed to be postponing our long-planned travels, but we were also relieved to be in the U.S.  Portugal is a poor country by American and European standards and it was clear early on that their only option to avoid overwhelming their health systems, as we were all watching occur in Italy, was to impart very draconian lock downs.  We also knew that were we to get sick, the care we would receive in America was likely to be more cutting edge and when vaccines became available, U.S. citizens would be amongst the first to receive them.  All those things came to pass.  But there is more to the story.

Portugal is a very small country, only about 10 million people.  In Europe, only Italy has a larger percentage of the citizenry over the age of 65.  It’s also poor compared to its neighbors, it’s per capita GDP is six times lower than that of Spain and eight times lower than Italy.  We watched the news and spoke with friends riding it out in Lisbon and our, newly adopted, smaller, coastal town to see how Portugal planned to manage these challenges.  Here’s what they did:

  • The first thing was to remove politics from the conversation.  The opposition to the ruling party came out very early in the pandemic in complete support of the government.  They said this was a health issue, not a political one.  They would work together to speak to the people in a common voice, and they did.
  • They shut the country down, really shut it down.  No one was allowed on the streets except to secure essentials.  This was strictly enforced and was entirely driven by case counts.  When case counts dipped, they would relax the quarantine slightly from a “state of catastrophe” to a “state of calamity.”  This meant people were able to leave their homes for exercise, but no gatherings of any kind, including small family get-togethers, and strict mask requirements were upheld, even outside.
  • They waited their turn in line for vaccines.  As a poorer country relative to its neighbors, Portugal has largely benefited from its participation in the EU.  However, they were keenly aware from the beginning that the wealthy EU countries were likely to get first crack at vaccine distribution. 

Portugal did have some big things going for it.  Its small size made it easier to plan tactically for quarantines, mass vaccine distribution and mass messaging to the people. 

What has unfolded over the last 18 months is a tale of two countries.  We still don’t know when, or if, we will ultimately get this nasty virus behind us, but we do know a lot about how we as societies have reacted and will react to the dramatic changes to our way of life.

As an American, I’ve watched in horror as my incredible friends and colleagues in healthcare tire endlessly and thanklessly (at least these days) on the front lines of this ever-changing virus.  They have asked little of us but they have spoken with clarity and with near unanimity.  They want us to wear masks, they want us to practice social distancing and basic hand hygiene and they want us to get vaccinated.  That’s it.  That is all they ask.  For that, they have been willing to put their lives on the line for us every single day, enduring PPE scarcities, long hours, bed shortages and scary new variants.  Things actually started off pretty well.  I remember the “we’re all in it together” campaigns and initially people were grateful for their sacrifice and willing to help their fellow neighbor.  Maybe it was longer in some parts of the country, but in my mind, that lasted for about three weeks.  Then came an evolution of increasing selfishness and vitriol from the worst among us.  Stuff you couldn’t make up if you tried, people shouting at sixteen-year-old store clerks only asking they respect the rules and wear masks.  People denying the very existence of the virus even as their fellow deniers continued to get sick and die from it and, to me, most ridiculous, these same people who fought for their “freedoms” from the tyranny of basic human decency, refused the incredible privilege of being first in line in the world to receive free, lifesaving vaccines.  It has been my saddest days as an American.  The only positive light through all this darkness continues to shine from the amazing health care workers who endure the deniers and do everything in their power to provide them live saving treatment with they inevitably succumb to this terrible disease.

So how has Portugal fared?  Let me put it this way.  If you are an American, have you ever wondered what might have been?  What if we came together as a society, supported each other and those working so hard to care for us?  What if we respected and followed the rules, even when it was very difficult? There is an answer to that question and it is Portugal.  Those of you following the news closely over these last months might argue that it is Israel but I disagree.  Israel had early access to vaccines and was exceptional at widespread vaccination, but declared victory on the virus far too early.  They are constantly attempting to return to “life as normal” only to be met with increasingly challenging variants and break through infections.  Portugal is, even now, metering out vaccines as they become available.  But, listen to this:  As I write this, 84% of the Portuguese population has received two shots (87.5% with one shot).  That’s the whole population, including children under 12 who do not yet have access to vaccines.  By comparison, the United States, whose population received the vaccine months earlier has only 55% of the population fully vaccinated (64% have received one shot).  Restrictions have been eased and will continue to ease further, but most of the basic precautions are still very much in place.  We returned to Portugal in July; it is now mid-September.  Everyone, 100% of the population, wears masks indoors and most wear them outdoors, even though it is no longer required.  To eat indoors at a restaurant or to check into a hotel, you must show proof of vaccination or take a rapid test on the spot.  Hand sanitizer is everywhere, seriously everywhere.  I am in a hotel right now and I would guess there are 20 hand sanitizing stations in this building alone, in front of every restaurant, at the elevator on every floor, at every entrance.  Here’s the thing:  People respect the rules and each other.  In our entire time here, I have not seen one person refuse compliance.

There was a buffet at breakfast today.  This is how it worked: We were all seated at very socially distant tables.  The buffet was in a separate room.  We were given the following instructions:

  • Only four people were allowed in the buffet area at a time.
  • Everyone must hand sanitize prior to entering the buffet.
  • Everyone was given and expected to use, our own set of tongs for serving.
  • Everyone, of course, was expected to wear a mask.

Can you imagine this working anywhere in the U.S.?  We’ve been traveling for several weeks now and every hotel has their own version of this.  It’s their way of ensuring we all stay safe.  Everyone respectfully and happily complies.  Ironically, these rules make it possible for there to be less restrictions on our freedoms.  Because there are such precautions, we now feel safe traveling, eating in hotels and going to museums.  We are able to return to some semblance of normal life.

I am not saying Portugal has escaped this pandemic unscathed, unfortunately, no amount of precaution affords complete immunity to this horrible illness.  However, their health care system has never been overrun with cases.  Never.  When our 30-year-old Portuguese language teacher received her vaccine a month ago we were all very excited.  Her first words to us were “I am proud to do this for my country.”  I still get a lump in my throat when I think of that conversation.  My emotion is a combination of pride for my adopted second country and a sadness for my first.  As a proud American, I can’t help thinking about what might have been if our citizens thought less about individual liberties and more about their fellow Americans. 

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