Sunday, January 31, 2021

Coronavirus pandemic is causing mental health havoc


Mental health issues are festering on the sidelines of the constant news reports about Covid-19 infection and death rates, strict lockdown measures, the economic slump and vaccination plans.  

As is the case globally, a great many citizens in Portugal have to cope with Covid-related stress, anxiety, loneliness, fear, depression, anger or worse. 

Other symptoms include changes in appetite, energy and interests. Some people are having difficulty concentrating, making decisions or sleeping. Headaches, body pains, stomach problems and skin rashes are among the physical reactions to worsening mental conditions that at the other end of the scale are causing domestic violence and self-harm. 
According to a leading Portuguese psychologist,   Francisco Miranda Rodrigues, there are only 2.5 mental health professionals per 100,000 people in Portugal. As the months go by, more and more people - especially those living alone or in very tight family units with little or no income - have become vulnerable. 

Portugal has gone from being one of the least affected by the pandemic to having the highest infection and death rates per head of population in the world. 
While hospitals are being overwhelmed and struggling to take in more coronavirus patients, they are also faced with trying to treat patients arriving with illnesses just as deadly, or even more so. Mental health is thus being over-shadowed.

Nearly 40% of all Covid deaths occurred this January. In March last year, this was the last country in Europe to register its first Covid-19 case. 
Portugal’s total contagion figures per head of population went on last year
 to be as little as 10 percent of those in neighbouring Spain, while the latter was one of the most affected countries in the European Union. Perhaps this helped create complacency in Portugal.

There is certainly no complacency now. Tight lockdown restrictions have been extended at least to the middle of this month and the border with Spain has been closed. As necessary as these measures may be, they have led to greater public frustration and protests.

The sluggish rollout of vaccines is troubling to many citizens. Others have little or no confidence in the vaccines, an attitude supported by disinformation and scare-mongering on social media. 

It’s estimated that as little as 30 percent of Portugal’s population is even abiding by the social distancing rules. This may be due in part to pandemic fatigue that has been on the rise since last March, says Francisco Miranda Rodrigues.

“It’s a complicated cocktail of causes, perhaps unique to Portugal,” he told Aljazeera. “Twenty percent of our population lives in poverty or social exclusion, a very significant figure, and after such a long pandemic their limited resources have been used up. As a result, their ability to follow the lockdown rules has gone up in smoke.”

As in other countries, the Portuguese government’s “stay at home” mantra has been complicated by pages of confusing exceptions to the basic rules. The threat of fines has added to worries and annoyance.
Herbal remedies and prescription anti-depressant drugs are available in pharmacies, but mental health specialists have a number of other suggestions to help those struggling on their own with Covid-related problems.
For a start it’s a good idea to take lengthy breaks from viewing, listening to or reading about Covid news. Thinking as positively as possible and confiding as necessary in those you trust may be reassuring.

By taking care of your body you will be taking care of you mind too. That means a well-balanced diet, regular exercise, avoiding excessive alcohol, tobacco or other dodgy substances, and getting plenty of sleep.


Monday, January 25, 2021

Victory for Rebelo de Sousa


Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa will concentrate on the devastating impacts of Covid-19 as he starts his second five-year term as Portugal’s president.

“Everything starts with the battle against the pandemic,” said the 72-year-old moderate, centre-right politician in his victory speech. His victory had been clearly predicted. The low turnout of voters on Sunday did not come as any surprise either.

Rebelo de Sousa won 61 percent of the votes cast. The turnout was less than 40 percent of the total number of registered voters due to the worsening Covid crisis.  

The veteran centre-left politician Ana Gomes, who stood as an independent, came second in the election with 13 percent of the votes. André Ventura of the far-right came third with 12 percent.

Although the role of Portugal’s president is largely ceremonial, he can be very influential and has major powers in times of political crisis.

Rebelo de Sousa is likely to continue cooperating with the centre-left minority Socialist government led by Prime Minister António Costa. The Socialists decided not to field a candidate against de Sousa, but urged citizens to vote in the presidential election.

While Rebelo de Sousa’s victory was never in doubt, much interest had been focused on André Ventura. Right-wing nationalism is flourishing in several EU countries, but until now has had almost no place in Portugal since the dictatorship was toppled in the revolution of 1974.

Portugal is currently experiencing one of the highest per capita coronavirus infection and death rates in the world. The numbers have been steeply climbing since Christmas and the surge last week was deeply shocking. The rollout of vaccines has been slow as indeed it has been across the whole of the European Union.

The current severe lockdown restrictions throughout Portugal were partially lifted to let voters go to the polling booths on Sunday. The full ban on people moving about outdoors except for well defined essential purposes is in place until Saturday 30th January. All cafes and restaurants except those selling takeaways, and all shops except those selling food, will remain closed. This may extend into February.

The nationwide closure of schools for 14 days was added to the curfew rules at the end of last week.  

Friday, January 22, 2021

Coronavirus complicates Portugal's presidential election

 President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa

A surge in Covid-19 to record levels in Portugal has already affected Sunday’s presidential election.

Because of the strict lockdown measures throughout the country, and because there are no postal or electronic methods of voting in place, special arrangements were made for elderly citizens in quarantine and in care homes to cast their ballots well ahead of time. 

Many of the more than 10 million registered voters will use the normal polling-booth system on Sunday, but the total turnout is almost certain to be exceptionally low. 

Incumbent President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and his six rival candidates have been frustrated in their campaigning by not being able to get out and about to meet citizens. 

Rebelo de Sousa is expected to comfortably win a second term in office. This is despite harsh criticism from opponents for his cooperation with the minority socialist government in the handling of the Covid crisis.    

President de Sousa, 72, won his first five-year term in March 2016. He is a veteran of the the right-of-centre Portuguese Social Democratic Party (PSD), a former professor and a popular media pundit. 

While the role of the president is largely ceremonial, he has strong powers in times of political crisis. So far, he has worked well with the centre-left Socialist prime minister, António Costa, who leads a minority government wanting for support. 

Second place in the presidential election is likely to go to either Ana Gomes of the centre-left or André Ventura of the hard right. Ventura is particularly controversial as he is the strongest representative of the hard right since the toppling of Portugal’s dictatorship in the 1974 revolution.  

The daily statistics for people affected by the Covid-19 pandemic have surged since Christmas. They are expected to rise further in the immediate future.

Last Wednesday, more than 14,600 new Covid infections set a national record and one of the highest surges in the world. Covid deaths were being recorded on average every seven minutes. 

The health authorities confirmed that there were about 3,600 more cases on Wednesday than the previous daily record set a few days earlier. 

The number of COVID-19 patients in hospital and in intensive care has also soared to record heights and pushed medical facilities to their limits. 

The military are collaborating with public and private hospitals to help meet the unprecedented needs. 

The current tight restrictions, which are obviously creating great social and economic hardships, will continue at least until Saturday 30th January. A review may extend them further.  

An EU virtual summit meeting on Thursday highlighted disagreement on plans to restrict cross-border travel. Some member states want a total ban. 

Portugal has now banned all flights with the UK, especially in the light of variants of the coronavirus.

Serious concerns were expressed during the summit meeting over the relatively slow rollout of virus vaccines across Europe.

By 17th January, more than 662,000 deaths due to the pandemic had been recorded across Europe. 


Friday, January 15, 2021

If possible, stay at home!

Instead of a return in the direction of a new normality we had all wished for at New Year, restrictions throughout mainland Portugal and the Azores have been tightened in response to the worsening coronavirus pandemic.

The mantra for the rest of this month is “stay at home.”

Acceptable reasons for leaving home include going to essential workplaces, medical facilities such a hospitals, clinics and pharmacies, schools or shops selling food.

The restrictions are not expected to hinder the vaccination programme. Banks and petrol stations will remain open. So will all educational establishments.

Places closed include: cafes, restaurants except those selling takeaways, non-food shops, hairdressing saloons and gyms. Facemasks, social distancing and avoiding large groups remain mandatory.

The number of Covid infections and deaths have accelerated to record levels since Christmas.

The new measures will be reviewed and may be lightened after Saturday 30th January.

Fines to be imposed on those breaking the current full lockdown rules have doubled.

A special dispensation will be allowed on 24th January for those voting in the presidential election.The voter turnout is likely to be low. The current president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, is expected to win a second term.

The impact of the new tight restrictions will cause financial hardship to many business owners and employees. Those in the Algarve are particularly angry, some protesting publicly and saying that the Algarve should not be in lockdown to the same degree as the areas elsewhere in the country where the virus infection and death rates have been higher.

All direct flights between Portugal and the UK have been stopped. The UK has banned arrivals from Portugal as well as most South American countries to help control the spread of a new strain of the virus. Portugal has been singled out in Europe because of its close travel links with Brazil. 

UK and Irish citizens, as well as third country nationals with UK residency rights, may still enter the UK, but will have to quarantine after arrival.

Sunday, January 3, 2021


Prime Minister António Costa

On assuming the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on New Year’s Day, Portugal’s top political leaders sounded remarkably enthusiastic and positive about tackling the huge challenges facing the 27 member states over the next six months.

Prime Minister António Costa and Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva say their prime objectives will be to activate the Europe-wide mass Covid vaccination programme, as well as the €750 billion national recovery plan to alleviate the financial impacts of the pandemic.

The EU has been criticised for being rather slow to start the vaccination procedures while a new and more infectious strain of the coronavirus is spreading across the continent.

Portugal will be acting on this and other key matters in conjunction with the European Commission, presided over by Ursula von der Leyen.

This will be the fourth time Portugal has held the Council presidency, the first being in 1992, then again in 2000. The 2007 presidency was marked by the Lisbon Treaty that aimed to reform the Union.

From now until June, free universal vaccination for citizens in the 27 member states will be a priority. However, social restrictions, including the wearing of masks, are expected to continue for many months.

Portugal intends to focus very much on increasing solidarity between the member states. That will include activating social justice issues that have so far been divisive. Negotiations will look for common ground on the EU asylum and migration system. Some member states want to ban migrants of certain nationalities or cultures, if not close the EU to migrants altogether. Portugal is among those opposed to such limitations.

This controversy will be high on the agenda during an EU summit meeting in northern Portuguese city of Porto in May.

While maintaining as useful an agreement as possible with the UK following the post-Brexit trade deal signed on Christmas Eve, Portugal will seek to further balanced trade deals with other countries, especially India and China. Efforts will be made too to improve relations with the US that were negatively disrupted by President Trump.

Strengthening small and medium-sized businesses, which are fundamental to the EU economy, will be another primary focus under the Portuguese presidency.

EU budget arrangements were vetoed by Poland and Hungary during the last EU summit, but the €750 billion Covid recovery plan will be crucial for Portugal itself as well as for all the other member states.

The social and economic devastation caused by the pandemic has come hard on the heels of Portugal edging back to normality after the debt and bailout crisis.

The tourism sector, which is critical to the country’s income, has been brought to a virtual halt by the pandemic. Unemployment has increased to about 9%. Public debt has soared to a record 131% of GDP.