Portugal’s COVID deaths grow as tourism season kicks off | Coronavirus pandemic

Portugal’s COVID deaths grow as tourism season kicks off | Coronavirus pandemic

Faro, Portugal – Marie Braud until recently considered herself an anomaly. Despite travelling extensively for her work, the recruiter had managed to avoid testing positive for COVID-19 throughout the coronavirus pandemic. But that all changed in June.

The 37-year-old began to experience fever and fatigue shortly after attending the Santos Populares festival. She thought it was a cold at first, but after taking a PCR test on June 8, it was confirmed she had COVID-19.

“I thought coronavirus was a distant memory,” she told Al Jazeera while quarantining at her home in Lisbon. “I was meant to start a new job this week, it’s come at the worst possible time.”

Braud is one of thousands of citizens in the country of 10 million people who has recently tested positive for COVID-19, leaving health officials across the nation and Europe concerned about Portugal’s infection rate, as well as its high death count.

After pandemic curbs were lifted earlier this year, a spate of COVID-19 cases and deaths are growing in popular tourist population centres like Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve region as two years of pandemic-related cancellations have given way to popular parties and festivals during the summer season.

Portugal’s latest outbreak has made the country a hotspot of COVID-19 in Europe and home to the second-highest coronavirus case count in the world, after Taiwan.

The nation registered an average of 1,989 new cases per million people over the past seven days. In comparison, Spain registered 232 and the UK 161, according to tracker Our World in Data.

Portugal also registered an average of 41 deaths per one million inhabitants over a seven-day period, making the country home to the fifth-highest mortality rate in the world.

A tourist enjoys a beach in Albufeira, in Portugal’s southern Algarve region [File: Ana Brigida/AP]

Many health officials have expressed a mixture of light concern and disappointment at Portugal’s uptick in infections.

“The hope was that during the summer, we would have no more waves, no more coronavirus increases, so the hopes are somewhat diminished,” Hajo Zeeb, professor of epidemiology at the University of Bremen in Germany, who is closely monitoring Portugal’s current COVID-19 situation, told Al Jazeera.

The nation’s coronavirus outbreak, which is “above levels of concern” comes after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned in March that several European countries had lifted coronavirus restrictions too “brutally”, as they were witnessing an increase in infections “likely” caused by a more contagious coronavirus strain.

“There is no treatment in Portugal and other European countries towards the virus. The feeling is that people are basically accepting what is happening right now,” Zeeb said.

Perfect storm

In February, the Portuguese government announced a series of rollbacks of coronavirus measures as the country experienced a “significant fall” in COVID-19 cases and deaths after a peak in January, dropping to 62 fatalities per one million inhabitants in a 14-day period.

National health authorities say that the increase in illness is likely due to the easing of preventive measures, the emergence of Omicron sub-variants, steady tourist footfall, as well as super-spreader events like the return of crowded live events that have created the perfect storm for virus transmission.

Partly due to the Russia-Ukraine war, Portugal is currently experiencing a strong rebound in tourism, which has offered some respite for the nation given the economic hit the conflict is expected to deliver.

Experts say that tourists will see Portugal as a safer option than other countries, in addition to the heat, the beach and lower prices than other European countries.

As a result of strong tourist footfall and high contagion rates, health authorities have said that a high number of infections will “naturally” result in a higher number of deaths.

British people gather at Faro Airport as they interrupt their holidays in the Algarve to return home due to the British government's new quarantine rules about the COVID-19 pandemic, in Faro, Portugal
Experts say that tourists will see Portugal as a safer option than other countries, in addition to the heat, the beach and lower prices than other European countries [File: Luis Forra/EPA]

However, Miguel Castanho, a researcher at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Lisbon argues that while high contagion rates may be one contributing factor to Portugal’s spike in deaths, they do not tell the full story.

“The problem here is the impact on mortality, which is quite high, for a reason that is not completely known. Since the beginning of 2022, mortality has never dropped to significant levels,” he said.

One possible explanation is that there is a subcommunity of the population actually more sensitive to the disease compared with the general population.

“There is probably a group of people that is more exposed, or living in conditions that make them more fragile, or we are talking about a small fraction of the population that did not get vaccinated,” said the researcher.

Vaccination rate

More than 90 percent of the Portuguese population is vaccinated against the disease, according to Our World in Data.

However, scientists have warned that the subvariant BA.5, which represents nearly 90 percent of new COVID-19 infections in the country, is more contagious and could evade natural immunity from past infections and vaccinations, resulting in breakthrough infections.

The BA.4 strain has also been detected in the country.

Experts say vaccines are not helping in preventing particularly fresh infections.

“The vaccines have decreased in efficiency for new strains,” said Castanho, though he noted that the vaccines still have a high efficiency in protecting against the evolution of severe cases of the disease.

Health authorities have criticised the Portuguese government for dragging its feet on urgently tackling the spread of more contagious strains and for the delay in introducing vaccines adapted to the Omicron subvariants.

Portugal’s health minister Marta Temido announced earlier this month that the autumn COVID-19 vaccination campaign would include a fourth booster shot that is adapted to Omicron.

But she has dismissed the possibility of reintroducing stricter measures like the use of face masks in outdoor areas or limiting the number of people in restaurants.

‘Not over its peak’

Although the rolling averages of COVID-19 cases and deaths have subsided slightly during the past week, representing just over a third of the January 31 peak, health officials warn that Portugal’s sixth wave of infections is far from rescinding.

Henrique Oliveria, a mathematician from the Superior Technological Institute of Lisbon said that Portugal was “still not over its peak”, warning that the propagation of the virus is likely to reach its height during the Festas dos Santos Populares this month, and could result in the emergence of a new strain.

“Hospitalisations in wards and intensive care units and deaths will remain high until June 25,” he told Al Jazeera.

Portugal currently has reported 1,991 hospitalisations and 108 people in intensive care units per million inhabitants in the past week, according to Our World in Data.

Despite hospitalisations, cases and deaths being high, both the economy minister Antonio Costa da Silva and small tourism businesses hit the hardest during the pandemic have resisted health authorities’ calls for tougher restrictions.

Healthcare workers attend to patients at the Portimao Arena sports pavilion converted in a field hospital for Covid-19 patients at Portimao, in the Algarve region
Healthcare workers attend to patients at the Portimao Arena sports pavilion converted in a field hospital for COVID-19 patients at Portimao, in the Algarve region [File: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP]

“The pandemic has been a monumental struggle for all. Businesses, particularly small, young tourism organisations feel like they have endured the toughest possible time in the past two years,” Carlos Correira, manager of Cafe Fresco in the Algarve, told Al Jazeera.

As Portugal’s hospitality sector endures a chronic labour shortage, driven in large part by rising fuel costs and workers seeking more stable sources of income elsewhere, the concern for many local businesses is not the reintroduction of strict COVID-19 measures during the summer, but more of the tourism sector – which badly needs its workforce to get back to work – being drained of employees who are quarantining at home.

“We were expecting a new employee to start on Saturday, but after testing positive for COVID-19, he can only start on Wednesday. We’re inundated with clients,” said the manager Correira, before adding that he felt that Portugal had “psychologically moved on from the virus”.

Across Europe, health authorities have warned that a relaxed approach to the virus and an abrupt removal of COVID-19 measures by authorities during the summer months could spell a “very, very hard winter ahead”, resulting in the prospect of fresh, tougher restrictions across the continent during the colder months.

“I’m concerned that if we keep the virus circulating at this level, that it’s enough to eventually start a new big wave.”

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