An early campaign aimed at raising awareness about the gravity of COVID-19 and the importance of screening had an even greater impact on Portugal's aging population (20.5% of the population above 65 years of age, compared to 13.1% in 1994). This age range is all too familiar with the regional weaknesses and disparities of the National Health System (SNS), which was seriously compromised by years of austerity. As of March 12, no deaths or serious cases had been recorded and the state of alert was in place. The state of emergency was declared on March 19, schools closed on March 16 and a sanitary cordon was set up around the town of Ovar (55,000 inhabitants) on March 17.
Between March 1 and the beginning of April, more than 110,000 screening tests had been carried out, reaching a daily capacity of 11,000 tests. This is a level comparable to countries such as Denmark. At the end of April, nearly 23 tests per 1,000 inhabitants were being carried out, ranking Portugal in the middle with respect to OECD countries. The urban population has found it easy to acquire protective face masks, gloves and antibacterial hand gel because many cities have been distributing free kits of 5 masks through the mail, with a leaflet reminding citizens of the preventative measures to take. Moreover, the textile industry as a whole acted quickly, making face masks in large quantities. Several aircraft also arrived from China carrying much-needed equipment such as ventilators. The Portuguese Embassy in Beijing has become a sort of giant medical equipment warehouse where the ambassador – and former diplomatic adviser to President Rebelo de Sousa – struggles to keep count. Following the handover of Macau in 1999 and the signing of their strategic partnership in 2004, China identified Portugal as another bridgehead to expand its influence. China's large-scale investments in Portugal due to the financial crisis and austerity raised fears that the latter was on the verge of becoming "a Chinese aircraft-carrier in Europe."
Portugal's first two confirmed cases were reported on March 2, with a 60-year-old man returning from Italy and a 33-year-old man returning from Valencia, and the first death was announced on March 16. Thanks to the country's ready ability to respond to this crisis and ensure hospital capacity, the worst was prevented. Further assisting in the fight against the epidemic, a large part of the population voluntarily went into lockdown, even before the government imposed its containment measures. What's more, many parents took their children out of school well before March 16. Other factors may have helped to avoid a major outbreak, such as the early elimination of SL Benfica and FC Porto from the group stage of the European Champions League. This meant avoiding situations such as the February 19 match in Milan between Atalanta Bergamo of Italy and FC Valencia of Spain, which served as an epidemic cluster event in bringing together more than 50,000 supporters of the two clubs in the capital of Lombardy – the epicenter of the European pandemic.
While Portugal remains one of the least affected European countries, it fears, like so many others, a second wave, especially since only a small percentage of the population would have been exposed to the virus. This fear explains the renewed vigilance in force during the Easter weekend – traditionally a time of family travel and gatherings – and the extension of the state of emergency until early May. Hence, the emotionally charged decision was made to cancel the traditional Carnation Revolution parades, including Lisbon's Avenida da Liberdade parade. At the same time, an unprecedented appeal was made to the population, asking them to sing "Grândola, Vila Morena/Terra da Fraternidade" (emblematic of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) and April 25, 1974) from their window on April 25 at 3 pm. For its part, Parliament took the somewhat controversial decision to reduce the number of participants in the traditional April 25, or "Freedom Day," commemorative session at the Assembly of the Republic to three quarters, with social distancing in place.
Resilience and solidarity