Susana Peralta is associate professor of economics at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and a columnist for Público.
LISBON — In all the confusion and distress over coronavirus vaccine campaigns, Europe risks paying too little attention to the extremely critical situation in Portugal, which is experiencing a frightening spike in COVID-19 cases.
Last Thursday, the country hit a record number of new cases, with nearly 13,000 cases. To put that number in perspective: Germany was rightly spooked about 25,000 cases per day in the last weeks. Controlled for population, the Portuguese numbers would represent 110,000 daily new cases in Germany.
Our hospitals are overflowing and starting to have issues with oxygen supply. On Friday, three patients were airlifted from Lisbon to the island of Madeira because of a lack of intensive care beds. Ambulances are queuing up outside the emergency room of the country’s biggest hospital, sometimes waiting for more than 12 hours.
If the situation does not improve, Portugal risks becoming in this latest coronavirus wave what Bergamo, Italy was in the first wave last March: a symbol of Europe’s failure to lend effective and timely support to a member country in desperate need.
To be clear: This crisis is homemade. Portugal’s cash-strapped government made critical mistakes in its handling of the pandemic and chose to prioritize short-term solutions. While the rest of Europe closed restaurants and cafés, ours were allowed to keep operating part-time. Sports facilities, hairdressers and shops were open until January 15.
Add to this a severe lack of investment in our health system, which is among the weakest across the EU, and you have all the ingredients of a perfect storm.
Our health sector has suffered from a lack of funding and planning since the troika years. At this critical time, staff are relying on basic tools such as Excel spreadsheets and WhatsApp groups among physicians to organize themselves, according to recent reports.
It’s a problem that predates the pandemic and will continue to have serious ripple effects. In an interview last week, Alexandre Lourenço, the president of the Portuguese Association of Hospital Administrators, said Portugal got through the first wave last year by delaying 120,000 surgeries and more than 10 million medical consultations, most of which still have not been carried out.
Faced with a humanitarian disaster, this is not the time to get sidetracked by discussions of blame. You don’t ask victims in a traffic accident first whose fault it was. You help them.
That is what Portugal is asking of the EU. Lisbon has always been a constructive partner. Now it needs its fellow EU members to lend immediate and significant help. In a welcome move Germany and Austria have already mobilized support.
Most urgently, we need to set up field hospitals to treat the milder cases and free up our hospitals for the most severely affected patients. To do so, we need medical equipment, logistics support and, if possible, human resources.
The Portuguese Association of Hospital Administrators estimates that 1,000 COVID-19 patients — among the 6,000 currently hospitalized — could be discharged from hospitals to this type of medical facility. According to Lourenço, doing so would make a greater difference than transferring the most severe cases to foreign hospitals.
The EU and its member countries, when they work together, can achieve a great deal. We are a complicated club, in which every member wants to have a voice. And when things go wrong, we like to blame one another, or the club administrator — the European Commission.
Let’s do better this time. Let’s act fast, together, to save lives.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)