Covid will “haunt” Portugal for years

 In Covid-19, In Focus, News

A Portuguese doctor, parliamentary deputy and former deputy mayor of Cascais has issued a stinging criticism of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, claiming reactive rather than proactive policies led to countless more deaths than necessary.

Ricardo Baptista Leite, addressing the Harvard Club of Portugal hosted by its President Stephan Morais and the American Club of Lisbon hosted by its president Patrick Siegler-Lathrop, heard how half-hearted restrictions and a disastrous relaxation of them over the Christmas and New Year period had partly led to Portugal becoming the basket case of the world in terms of infection numbers and deaths in terms of a percentage of the population.
To date, according to a Portuguese government health website, thee are 127,867 active cases of Covid-19, 628,078 recovered, 14,557 deaths, 770,502 confirmed cases, 7,656,690 tests undertaken and 400,190 vaccines given. (9 February)
“We have seen so many deaths that could have been avoided, and it is something that haunts us all. Portugal suffered more deaths than during its colonial wars (1960s to 1974), which will leave a scar on the Portuguese people for many years to come,” he said.
Ricardo Baptista Leite remarked that the government had not anticipated the possible outcomes of the pandemic and reacted rather than being proactive.
The doctor and professor said that all his advice to the government had been “largely ignored”, probably on political grounds because is a prominent member of the centre-right PSD opposition party, as well as being a PSD deputy in parliament.
“We needed to bury party political differences and unite together as a ‘war cabinet’” he said, to tackle the pandemic in a similar manner to the way Israel has handled the crisis and which has, so far, effectively dealt with the virus with military precision.
In his view, ideology also prevented Portugal’s current socialist government under António Costa and ruling PS party from encouraging the country’s health minster, Marta Temido, to act as a minister serving the best health interests for the general public as a whole, instead of just focusing on the public sector. This could have been done by engaging with and enlisting the help of the private sector early on and not just the public health sector given the serious nature of the national emergency.
“I recommended in March that she should have been perceived as minister of both public and private health and negotiated with and struck a deal with private hospital groups from the very start, which she (Marta Temido) failed to do,” he said.
The doctor explained that the government had helped to create “the perfect storm” by lifting restrictions in the late spring and early summer which inevitably led to further weekend restrictions in the autumn and then lifting them in time for Christmas in a half-baked approach. At the same time it tried to contain the virus through municipal restrictions when all the science and data suggested regional restrictions were necessary.
Yet the one region which had negligible cases in most of 2020, particularly the easter and summer months, the Algarve, was dealt a double whammy when the British government “cancelled the air bridge and rather unfairly in my view.”
The deputy also slammed the lack o coherent strategy in tackling the virus on several levels and criticised its mixed messaging in the media.
“There should have been regular mass testing of the population early on to see how and where the virus was spreading, this wasn’t done. In fact, a decrease of testing done between November 20 and December 20 after a decrease in registered cases from the end of November led to a false hope that the restrictions had been controlling the pandemic, which mistakenly led to lighter restrictions over Christmas,” he said. “That was a mistake” with terrible consequences in January.
Dr. Baptista Leite also pointed to the lack of forward planning and failure to adequately negotiate with the private sector which not only cost more lives as ICUs filled up, but put the lives of those suffering from non-Covid emergencies at risk as these patients were largely sidelined. In the long run this policy regarding the private sector would cost the State and taxpayer more.
“On 15 January, the government introduced more measures and then closed the schools and declared full lockdown on 22 January, yet testing has decreased along with case numbers. Portugal simply does not have an adequate proactive testing strategy which is followed by isolation in hotels, or a blanket tracing policy using call centres,” he said explaining that Portugal was a poor country with many families unable to effectively isolate at home through lack of space.
“We should be testing greater samples of the population to get a real picture of how the virus is spreading, if this is not done then some very poor decisions will be made and outcomes seen,” concluded Dr. Ricardo Baptista Leite.