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Portugal's swift reaction to COVID-19 key to its low death and infection rate

On 29 February news that the author Luis Sepúlveda was fighting for his life after testing positive for COVID-19 in a Spanish hospital intensive care ward raised the alarm in Portugal, where a week earlier he had attended a literary festival in Póvoa de Varzim, near Porto.

The Daily Telegraph reports that Portugal’s reaction was swift. Lockdown measures were announced on 13 March, the same day as Spain, even though only 122 COVID-19 cases were recorded and zero deaths. Spain's death toll stood at 132, with more than 5,000 confirmed cases.

The report says typically living in the shadow of its larger Iberian neighbour, Portugal has emerged as something of a winner in the pandemic, and is now starting to ease its lockdown after avoiding the hospital collapses suffered by countries including Spain and Italy.

Portugal’s 10.2m inhabitants were given the freedom of the streets on Sunday after advice to keep exercise walks to a minimum were relaxed as the country’s state of emergency was replaced by a lower-category state of calamity. 1 June is the date slated for a return to normality, with groups of more than 10 people banned until then and the compulsory use of face masks on public transport.

But António Costa, the prime minister, last week warned against complacency.

According to epidemiologists and experts, the keys to Portugal’s success have been the extra time the country had to prepare on being one of the last in Europe to record cases, a rapid response in tracing sources of infection, large-scale testing and the steady rehabilitation of the country’s public health system after the euro-crisis era of austerity.

Inês Fronteira, a professor of epidemiology at the institute of hygiene and tropical medicine at the Lisbon Nova University has compared the development of the epidemic in the country to the experiences of China, South Korea, Italy, Spain, Germany, France and the US, and found that Portugal registered a lower daily rate of increase in infections than all of the study group. “Portugal had the opportunity to watch the experience of other countries, see what measures were taken, and to learn from those experiences. Portugal ended up implementing more or less the same measures as other countries, but doing so at an earlier stage of the epidemic.”

The report says perhaps equally remarkable as Portugal’s low rate of contagion is the calm atmosphere that has been maintained throughout the crisis, in which the government declared a state of emergency, but felt little need to back up the lockdown with penalties for those who have infringed it.

Also in stark contrast to Spain’s fractious political scene, Portugal’s main centre-right opposition party has pledged loyalty to the government in the battle against COVID-19. And Costa’s administration has even taken opportunities to occupy the moral high ground in mid-epidemic, notably with a move to temporarily confer legal residency status to all migrants, removing any barriers against their seeking shelter or medical treatment.

[link url="https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/05/04/portugal-saved-coronavirus-tragedy-neighbouring-spain/?li_source=LI&li_medium=liftigniter-rhr"]Full report in The Daily Telegraph[/link]

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