The View from Portugal

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March 19, 2020 10:30 a.m.

From TPM Reader ZH

I’m an American living in Portugal for the last 3 years. We just entered a state of emergency at midnight suspending many civil rights (eg strike, demonstration), enforcing restrictions on movement that are slightly escalated versions of what we did voluntarily for a few days, compelling essential businesses and workers to continue operating, allowing military deployment to assist, and vesting more power in the Prime Minister. This will last 15 days and is renewable.

In Portugal it looks like we are relatively lucky for a few reasons, some random chance:

(1) Italy got hit so hard and so fast that it rang the alarm for all of Europe. We did not have as far as I know any major early “superspreader” type cases.

(2) The medical schools shut down first because the medical system was screaming for action. Also there was one early case linked to a medical school. A big lesson for this is that people who should know better are so focused on their routine that they don’t recognize rapidly growing threats fast enough. Breaking the routine changes that.

(3) When medical schools and universities closed, we had a beautiful day last week and students absolutely flooded the most popular beach in the Lisbon area. It was a national scandal. That was repeated the next night with images of still crowded bars. Compared to the drip drip drip of these scenes of irresponsible (but understandable if you were ever young) behavior in USA it all started and ended very quickly.

(4) Most importantly, there has been a concerted and detailed public awareness campaign that does not insult our intelligence. For probably 2 weeks regular news programs have been full of doctors, virologists, epidemiologists and mathematicians explain exactly what is happening in very accurate terms (I’m a scientist in a not so unrelated field) and the consequences of inaction. Exponential growth, flatten the curve, distancing, etc. They also highlight slices of the new regular life by people in various states of self quarantine.

(5) The President (who doesn’t have a ton of power typically) has led by example, quarantined for a long time out of an abundance of caution, addressed the nation and conducted interviews over webcam, etc. The cabinet meets with the PM over zoom to ensure continuity of government.

All of this was about 100% in place before the first death three days ago. Of course there will be more deaths and we still aren’t sure if the health system can handle the coming surge, but this is what it takes to have a chance. We also have no idea about what the shift to eradication or containment will mean, let alone when people can travel freely in Europe. For a country so dependent on tourism this is almost an existential concern for our way of life.

Luckily nationwide the USA is not that far behind where Portugal was when it started, and has much greater resources. If people quickly adapt to strict quarantine and resources are distributed to places that need them the most, USA will pull through and is very well equipped to contain the outbreak and, I hope, transition to aiding countries in the Americas without the same capabilities. It should go without saying that USA would already be at the last step with competent leadership. I hope in Portugal we can play a small role like this for Europe if we manage containment more quickly than neighboring countries that had worse luck or a few more days of decision making paralysis in an environment where every day lost carries immeasurable costs.

From this point, the whole world is mostly on the same page: war against nCoV-2019. But every nation understandably sees it from a national perspective. I hope everyone realizes soon that a world in which some countries are left behind in this war is a world in which every country is worse off. Any country that fails will be cut off from those that succeed for years so we need to make sure that every country succeeds at any cost. It’s an existential threat to society as we know it, it’s possible to stop, and it’s now clear that no cost is too high because the harder you fight, the shorter this will last, and the sooner we can get back to something like normal.

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