Faro, Portugal – Until recently, Marie Braud considered herself an anomaly. Despite traveling extensively for work, the recruiter had managed to avoid testing positive for COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic. But that all changed in June.
The 37-year-old began to develop a fever and fatigue shortly after attending the Santos Populares festival. She thought it was a cold at first, but after a PCR test on June 8, she was confirmed to have COVID-19.
“I thought coronavirus was a distant memory,” she told Al Jazeera while quarantined at her home in Lisbon. “I was supposed to start a new job this week, it comes at the worst possible time.”
Braud is one of thousands of citizens in the country of 10 million people who have recently tested positive for COVID-19, raising concerns about Portugal’s infection rate and high death toll.
After pandemic restrictions were lifted earlier this year, a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths is mounting in popular tourist population centers such as Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve 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 COVID-19 hotspot in Europe and home to the world’s second-highest number of coronavirus cases, after Taiwan.
The country recorded an average of 1,989 new cases per million people in the past seven days. By comparison, Spain registered 232 and the UK 161 according to tracker Our World in Data.
Portugal also recorded an average of 41 deaths per million inhabitants over a seven-day period, making the country home to the fifth highest death rate in the world.
Many health officials have expressed a mixture of mild concern and disappointment at the rise in infections in Portugal.
“The hope was that in the summer we wouldn’t have any more waves, no increase in the coronavirus, so the hope has waned somewhat,” said Hajo Zeeb, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Bremen in Germany, who has assessed the current COVID-19 virus. epidemic in Portugal closely. -19 situation, Al Jazeera said.
The country’s coronavirus outbreak, which is “above health care levels”, comes after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned in March that several European countries had lifted coronavirus restrictions too “relentlessly” as they witnessed an increase in infections that “probably” were caused by a more contagious strain of coronavirus.
“There is no treatment in Portugal and other European countries against the virus. The feeling is that people are essentially accepting what is happening now,” Zeeb said.
In February, the Portuguese government announced a series of rollbacks on coronavirus measures as the country experienced a “significant drop” in COVID-19 cases and deaths after peaking in January, reaching 62 deaths per million inhabitants in a 14-day period. †
National health authorities say the increase in absenteeism is likely due to the easing of preventive measures, the emergence of Omicron subvariants, a steady stream of tourists and super-distributed events such as the return of crowded live events that create the perfect storm for virus transmission.
Partly as a result of the war between Russia and Ukraine, Portugal is currently experiencing a strong uptick in tourism, which has provided the country with some respite given the economic blow the conflict is expected to cause.
Experts say tourists will see Portugal as a safer option than other countries, in addition to the heat, beach and lower prices than other European countries.
As a result of strong visitor numbers and high infection rates, health authorities have said a high number of infections will “naturally” result in a higher number of deaths.
However, Miguel Castanho, a researcher at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Lisbon, argues that while high infection rates may be a contributing factor to the rise in deaths in Portugal, they don’t tell the full story.
“The problem here is the impact on mortality, which is quite high, for a reason that is not fully known. Since the beginning of 2022, the death rate has never fallen to a significant level,” he said.
One possible explanation is that there is a sub-community of the population that is more susceptible to the disease than the general population.
“There’s probably a group of people who are more exposed, or who live in conditions that make them more vulnerable, or we’re talking about a small fraction of the population that hasn’t been vaccinated,” the researcher said.
According to Our World in Data, more than 90 percent of the Portuguese population has been vaccinated against the disease.
However, scientists have warned that the BA.5 subvariant, which accounts for nearly 90 percent of new COVID-19 infections in the country, is more contagious and could evade natural immunity from previous infections and vaccinations, leading to breakthrough infections.
The BA.4 strain has also been detected in the country.
Experts say vaccines don’t help prevent fresh infections, especially.
“The efficiency of the vaccines for new strains has decreased,” Castanho said, although he noted that the vaccines still have high efficiency in protecting against the evolution of severe cases of the disease.
Health authorities have criticized the Portuguese government for urgently addressing the spread of more infectious strains and for delaying the introduction of vaccines adapted to the Omicron subvariants.
Portuguese Health Minister Marta Temido announced earlier this month that the COVID-19 vaccination campaign in the fall would include a fourth booster shot adapted to Omicron.
But she rejected the possibility of reintroducing stricter measures, such as using face masks in outdoor areas or limiting the number of people in restaurants.
‘Not past its prime’
While moving averages of COVID-19 cases and deaths have eased slightly over the past week, representing just over a third from their January 31 peak, health officials are warning that Portugal’s sixth wave of infections is far from going away.
Henrique Oliveria, a mathematician from the Superior Institute of Technology in Lisbon, said Portugal was “still not over its peak”, warned that the spread of the virus is likely to peak during the Festas dos Santos Populares this month, and could result in the emergence of a new species.
“The number of hospitalizations in wards and intensive care units and the number of deaths will remain high until June 25,” he told Al Jazeera.
According to Our World in Data, Portugal has reported 1,991 hospitalizations and 108 people in intensive care units per million inhabitants in the past week.
Despite the high rate of hospitalizations, cases and deaths, both Economy Minister Antonio Costa da Silva and the small tourism businesses hardest hit during the pandemic have resisted calls from health authorities for tougher restrictions.
“The pandemic has been a monumental struggle for everyone. Businesses, especially small, young tourism organizations, feel they have been through the toughest time possible in the past two years,” Carlos Correira, manager of Cafe Fresco in the Algarve, told Al Jazeera.
As the Portuguese hospitality industry suffers from a chronic labor shortage, largely caused 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 tourist traps. The sector – which desperately needs its staff to get back to work – is being robbed of employees who are quarantined at home.
“We expected a new employee to start on Saturday, but after testing positive for COVID-19, he won’t be able to start until Wednesday. We are being inundated with customers,” said the manager Correira, before adding that he felt Portugal “had moved away from the virus psychologically”.
Health authorities across Europe have warned that a relaxed approach to the virus and an abrupt lifting of COVID-19 measures by authorities during the summer months could set the prospect of a “very, very harsh winter” with the prospect of new, stricter restrictions. across the continent during the colder months.
“I worry that if we keep the virus at this level, it will be enough to eventually start another big wave.”