Portugal’s COVID-19 nightmare eases but end of lockdown still out of sight

By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira

LISBON (Reuters) – While the number of COVID-19 cases in Portugal is falling, the the far slower decline in hospitalizations and intensive care patients has left Lisbon residents resigned to the nationwide lockdown lasting for many more weeks.

“I’m a bit optimistic but we cannot think everything is fine,” said Ana Maria, 76, as she walked around a Lisbon neighborhood. “People must continue to be careful. The lockdown should continue for a bit longer so that we can get rid of this once and for all.”

Portugal, a nation of just over 10 million people, faced its toughest battle against the coronavirus pandemic last month. For weeks it had the world’s worst surge.

The nightmare has eased with the lockdown, with daily case and death tolls falling rapidly to just 63 deaths and 1,032 new cases on Tuesday – levels last seen in October when businesses were still open.

But the number of people in hospital remains around double the level authorities say must be reached to alleviate measures. A lockdown put in place on Jan. 15, shutting non-essential services and schools, is expected to last until at least the end of March.

“It is going well but the lockdown isn’t going to end for now,” Antonio Formiga, 58, said as he stood outside the bakery where he works. “We thought it would even if at a slower pace. We really need it (to end) because the business is reaching its limit.”

Health experts warned that lifting the lockdown too soon could lead to a rise in cases caused by the variant initially discovered in Britain, currently responsible for almost half of the country’s cases.

Another surge would be catastrophic for a fragile health system.

Germany sent on Tuesday a replacement team of military doctors and nurses to take over from the first deployment sent three weeks ago to prop up Lisbon’s under resourced hospitals.

“The costs of this endeavor are high but when it comes to European solidarity that’s unimportant,” German Ambassador Martin Ney said at the military base.

Portugal’s total number of infections is 799,106, and the total death toll stands at 16,086 people.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira, Additional reporting by Patricia Vicente Rua, Editing by Victoria Waldersee and Angus MacSwan)

COVID-19 surge takes toll on Portugal’s undertakers

By Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) – Standing next to the sealed coffin of yet another COVID-19 victim in Portugal, funeral parlor worker Carlos Carneiro wept as the bereaved family played a record of a traditional fado song as a final goodbye.

Carneiro, 37, has been in the undertaking business for two decades helping people cope with loss, but never felt as affected by sorrow and fear as now.

Portugal fared better than others in Europe in the first wave of the pandemic in March-April, but the new year brought a devastating surge in infections and deaths, overwhelming the health service and funeral homes.

More than 14,700 people have died of COVID-19 in Portugal, with cumulative infections since the start of the pandemic at nearly 775,000.

“I have never felt this emotional, with so many consecutive funerals,” Carneiro told Reuters in a quavering voice outside the crematorium where the body of 77-year-old Matilde Firmino was turned into ashes.

“It’s hard on us. We feel it when we get home.”

Due to coronavirus rules in place to reduce the risk of contagion, funeral homes like Carneiro’s Funalcoitao near Lisbon had to quickly adapt.

Workers must wear protective gear from head to toe, bodies are placed inside white plastic bags and then in a coffin, without embalming or makeup.

Families are rarely able to see the deceased before they are buried or cremated, and Firmino’s daughter was at one point worried if it was really her mother inside the coffin.

A priest blessed the coffin in a short service held outside as family and friends sheltered from the pouring rain. “I ask God to free us from this pandemic we are living,” he said.

Carneiro said he always seeks to honor the lives of the dead, but not being able to give families the full closure they seek is taking a toll on his well-being.

“These people are not numbers…People sit on their sofas and worry about (coronavirus) numbers, but we see people and their families. We have to deal with the drama,” Carneiro said.

‘THERE’S FEAR’

His brother Alvaro, 44, said January, when Portugal reported almost half of all its COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic, was the hardest month in his 24 years in the funeral business.

“We are scared of being infected, of infecting our family members at home,” he said at their family-run funeral home, which on Tuesday alone organized six services. “There’s fear.”

Funeral business associations have urged Portuguese authorities to vaccinate the sector’s around 5,000 workers as soon as possible.

“We are on the frontline so we should be considered a priority for vaccination but according to the news we are seeing there are not enough shots for everyone,” Alvaro Carneiro said. “We will have to endure this a little longer.”

A July 2020 article by two public health researchers said high death rates, restrictions, a fear of being infected and worries about their families’ wellbeing could affect funeral workers’ mental health, especially in the longer run after the daily pressure subsides.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Pedro Nunes; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Angus MacSwan)

“A symbol of hope” – German military aid arrives in Portugal

By Catarina Demony and Michael Nienaber

LISBON (Reuters) – A German military plane carrying over 20 doctors and nurses together with ventilators and hospital beds arrived on Wednesday in coronavirus-stricken Portugal, where a severe rise in cases has prompted several European nations to offer help.

The German team will manage a new unit of eight ICU beds in a private hospital in Lisbon, Hospital da Luz, which was equipped but lacked the staff to operate, Health Minister Marta Temido said at the military base where the plane landed.

“Eight beds may not sound like much, but it is a lot for a health system under significant pressure,” Temido said. “The help Germany extended is of great use for a health system facing the challenges we are – highly specialized health professionals.”

The medical team, consisting of eight doctors and 18 nurses, left the military base in northern Lisbon by bus shortly after arrival. The cargo, which includes 150 hospital beds and 50 ventilators, was unloaded after their departure.

“This is a vivid sign of European solidarity and a symbol of hope,” German ambassador Martin Ney told reporters at the military base.

Austria has offered to take in 10 to 15 COVID-19 intensive care patients who would be distributed in various hospitals across the country, its ambassador in Portugal, Robert Zischg, told Reuters.

The two countries’ health and defense ministries were in regular contact and it was up to Portugal to decide whether it would accept the offer, he said.

Hospitals across Portugal, a nation of about 10 million people, appear on the verge of collapse, with ambulances sometimes queuing for hours because of a lack of beds while some health units are struggling to find enough refrigerated space to preserve the bodies of the deceased.

Although daily infections and deaths from COVID-19 in the country on Tuesday retreated further from last week’s records and fewer patients were in intensive care, doctors and nurses are still over-stretched.

The island of Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal which took in three COVID-19 intensive care patients last Friday, will also take in another three, its regional government told news agency Lusa.

Portugal, which has so far reported a total of 13,017 COVID-19 deaths and 731,861 cases, reported close to half of all its COVID-19 deaths last month as cases accelerated.

(Reporting by Michael Nienaber in Berlin, Catarina Demony and Victoria Waldersee in Lisbon; editing by Emma Thomasson and Angus MacSwan)

As pandemic worsens, Portugal reports nearly half of all its COVID-19 deaths in January

By Catarina Demony and Victoria Waldersee

LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal reported close to half of all its COVID-19 deaths in January, highlighting the severe worsening of the pandemic in a country whose plight has caused several European nations to offer help.

Hospitals across the nation of just over 10 million appear on the verge of collapse, with ambulances queuing sometimes for hours for lack of beds and some health units struggling to find enough refrigerated space to preserve the bodies of the deceased.

Austria is willing to take in intensive-care patients and is waiting for Portuguese authorities to propose how many patients they want to transfer, the Austrian embassy in Lisbon said.

Germany will send medical staff and equipment.

Hard-hit neighbor Spain has offered help too, but Portugal is yet to accept, a Spanish foreign ministry source told Reuters, while Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told LaSexta TV both countries were in “direct contact every day, at all levels”.

In January, 5,576 people died from COVID-19, representing 44.7% of all 12,482 fatalities since the start of the pandemic in Portugal, health authority DGS said.

Portuguese officials have blamed the huge increase in the infection and death rates on the more contagious variant of the disease first detected in Britain, while acknowledging that a relaxation of restrictions on social movement over the Christmas holidays played a role.

The association representing funeral homes warned that public hospitals were running out of refrigerated space to preserve the bodies of COVID-19 victims, and some, including Portugal’s largest hospital Santa Maria, have installed extra cold containers to ease pressure on their morgues.

Over 711,000 infections have been reported since March 2020, with 43% of those infections in January, according to DGS, whose tally increased by 275 deaths and 5,805 cases on Monday.

Portugal has the world’s highest seven-day rolling average of new daily cases per million inhabitants, according to data tracker ourworldindata.org.

With 865 coronavirus patients in intensive care and 6,869 in hospital wards, hospitals are running out of beds and there is a shortage of doctors and nurses.

Portugal has 850 ICU beds allocated to COVID-19 cases in its mainland public health system and another 420 for those with other ailments, according to the latest data.

For most, vaccination against the virus is the light at the end of the tunnel. But only roughly 70,000 people have been fully vaccinated with the two required doses so far. Those over 80 start getting their shots on Monday.

(Reporting by Sergio Goncalves, Catarina Demony and Victoria Waldersee; Additional reporting by Belen Carreno and Emma Pinedo Gonzalez in Madrid and Seythal, Thomas Seythal in Berlin; Editing by Ingrid Melander, Mark Heinrich and Bernadette Baum)

Portugal extends lockdown as COVID-19 brings health service to its knees

By Sergio Goncalves and Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal’s parliament extended a nationwide lockdown on Tuesday until mid-February, as Prime Minister Antonio Costa accepted blame for the world’s worst coronavirus surge, with hospitals on the verge of being overrun.

With 10 million people, Portugal reported a record 303 COVID-19 deaths and 16,432 new cases on Thursday, and now has the world’s highest per capita seven-day averages of both new cases and deaths.

Costa told TVI broadcaster overnight the situation was “not bad, but terrible … and we’ll face this worst moment for a few more weeks”.

The situation had worsened partly because his government relaxed restrictive measures between Christmas and the end of the year, he said, with the country now grappling with a virulent new variant of the virus first detected in Britain.

“There were certainly errors: often the way I transmitted the message to the Portuguese … and, when the recipient of the message did not understand the message, then it is the messenger’s fault,” he said. The lockdown should, in principle, start reducing infection numbers next week, he added.

Some hospitals are running out of beds, others see dwindling oxygen supplies, and doctors and nurses are over-stretched. Staff at the Cascais Hospital, near Lisbon, told Reuters they were exhausted. “There is no end in sight,” one nurse said.

The new lockdown, which came into force on Jan. 15 for the first time since the initial wave of the pandemic, will last at least until Feb. 14. Non-essential services are closed, remote work is compulsory where possible and schools are shut.

“Unfortunately we are dealing with a disease that surprises us every day and we do not give up… we continue to fight every day,” Health Minister Marta Temido told parliament before lawmakers voted to extend the lockdown.

Germany said on Wednesday it was willing to help and had sent military medical experts to Portugal to assess what kind of support it could bring.

But Costa said there was only so much European partners could do. “One should be cautious” about the idea of sending patients abroad from Portugal, which has a land border only with already over-stretched Spain.

Regarding possible German aid, he said: “In everything Portugal has asked for, unfortunately they have no availability, namely doctors, nurses.”

Officials said the first phase of Portugal’s vaccination plan will be extended by around two months into April as delivery delays mean the country will receive just half the expected doses by March.

(Reporting by Victoria Waldersee, Sergio Goncalves and Catarina Demony; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Catarina Demony; Editing by Andrei Khalip, Larry King, Peter Graff)

Portugal’s daily COVID deaths hit record high as hospitals struggle

By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira

LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal, initially praised for its swift response to the coronavirus pandemic, recorded a record number of COVID-19 related deaths on Monday as its hospitals struggled to cope.

The Portuguese government, facing concerns over low compliance with lockdown measures brought in last week, also introduced further rules to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus among its population of 10 million people.

Portugal posted 167 COVID-19 related deaths over the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 9,028 since the pandemic began.

“After so many cases, and so many deaths, nobody can … think COVID-19 only happens to others,” Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa told reporters.

Under the new rules, those not able to work remotely will have to carry an employer declaration and people will not be allowed to travel between municipalities over the weekend.

“You see a lot of people not following (the rules) during this new lockdown,” Anabela Ribeiro, 55, said as she left a busy train station in the heart of the capital Lisbon.

“Stricter measures are needed,” Ribeiro added.

Hospitals are struggling to cope with the soaring number of infections, with Portugal now the country with the highest rolling average of new cases over the last seven days per million inhabitants, ourworldindata.org said.

Portugal also reported a record 664 coronavirus patients in intensive care, just below the 672 maximum allocation of ICU beds out of a total of just over 1,000, health authorities said.

With 6,702 new cases the cumulative tally of infections in the country has now reached 556,503.

“The impact is huge because the number of beds doesn’t increase, the walls are not expandable and health workers are not multiplying,” Antonio Pais de Lacerda, a doctor at Lisbon’s biggest hospital, Santa Maria, said.

Portugal has already nearly doubled the number of ICU beds since the start of the pandemic, when it had just 528 critical care beds and Europe’s lowest ratio per 100,000 inhabitants.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira; Additional reporting by Victoria Waldersee and Patricia Vicente Rua; Editing by Andrei Khalip, Timothy Heritage and Alexander Smith)

Economic clout makes China tougher challenge for U.S. than Soviet Union was – Pompeo

By Robert Muller

PRAGUE (Reuters) – China’s global economic power makes the communist country in some ways a more difficult foe to counter than the Soviet Union during the Cold War, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on a visit to the Czech Republic on Wednesday.

Pompeo called on countries around Europe to rally against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which he said leverages its economic might to exert its influence around the world.

“What’s happening now isn’t Cold War 2.0,” Pompeo said in a speech to the Czech Senate. “The challenge of resisting the CCP threat is in some ways much more difficult.”

“The CCP is already enmeshed in our economies, in our politics, in our societies in ways the Soviet Union never was.”

The Cold War reference came after China’s ambassador to London last month warned that the United States was picking a fight with Beijing ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.

U.S.-China ties have quickly deteriorated this year over a range of issues including Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus; telecoms-equipment maker Huawei; China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea; and the clampdown on Hong Kong.

Pompeo’s visit to the Czech Republic, part of the Soviet bloc until the 1989 democratic Velvet Revolution, marked the first stop on a swing through the region to discuss cyber and energy security.

He used the occasion to swipe at both Russian and Chinese influence and lauded officials in the central European nation of 10.7 million who took on Beijing over the past year.

He cited the Czech Republic’s efforts to set security standards for the development of 5G telecommunications networks after a government watchdog warned about using equipment made by China’s Huawei.

Pompeo and Prime Minister Andrej Babis signed a declaration on 5G security in May, but the country has not made an outright decision to ban Huawei technology. Its President Milos Zeman has been promoting closer ties with China.

Pompeo also acknowledged the chairman of the Czech Senate Milan Vystrcil, who followed through on a plan by his deceased predecessor to visit Taiwan at the end of this month, a trip that has angered China.

Pompeo said some nations in Europe would take longer to wake up to the threats, but there was a positive momentum.

“The tide has turned (in the United States), just as I see it turned here in Europe as well. The West is winning, don’t let anyone tell you about the decline of he West,” he said.

“It will take all of us… here in Prague, in Poland, in Portugal. We have the obligation to speak clearly and plainly to our people, and without fear. We must confront complex questions… and we must do so together,” he said.

(Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Michael Kahn, William Maclean)

Portugal tackles labor trafficking on farms but resources scarce

A Thai worker drinks, during a labour conditions control at a red fruit farm near Odemira, Portugal February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

By Catarina Demony

ODEMIRA, Portugal (Reuters) – Portugal is cracking down on labor trafficking, carrying out thousands of raids on farms suspected of trapping poor migrants in unpaid work, with the known number of victims almost doubling in less than a decade.

“Labor exploitation in agricultural areas, especially in the Alentejo region, is out of control,” said Acasio Pereira, president of the inspectors’ union in Portugal’s Immigration and Border Service (SEF).

A European Commission report in December said that in 2015-16 Portugal had a higher proportion of labor trafficking victims per one million of the population than any other European Union state except Malta.

Most victims are men and predominantly from Eastern Europe as well as India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, said SEF.

Portuguese investigators say typical victims are impoverished migrants brought to Portugal by trafficking rings with the promise of a job advertised on the Internet.

But once put to work, their identity documents are often confiscated and their pay withheld, with many packed into grim, common living quarters with few amenities.

“Human trafficking is a phenomenon that really worries us,” Filipe Moutas, a police captain in Portugal’s National Republican Guard (GNR), told Reuters as a team checked workers’ employment contracts and identity documents during a raid on a 100-acre (40-hectare) raspberry farm in Alentejo last week.

“We keep a close eye on this and regularly carry out operations of this kind. Our main concern is labor trafficking because that’s the reports we have been receiving.”

Thai workers wait for a labour conditions control at a red fruit farm near Odemira, Portugal February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

Thai workers wait for a labour conditions control at a red fruit farm near Odemira, Portugal February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

CRACKDOWN

The Feb. 7 raid began with four police cars driving into the middle of a field where officers jumped out to locate the owner, who had Thais and Bulgarians in his workforce.

Police found no irregularities this time. All workers had the required work permits and their contracts were in order.

“I don’t recruit anyone abroad,” said the farm owner, who wished not to be named. “I need people and they just come.”

But in another raid a few weeks earlier in the nearby city of Beja, police found 26 victims of trafficking and arrested six Romanians, the biggest bust of its kind to date, the SEF said.

The Council of Europe reported last year that labor trafficking was rising across the continent and had overtaken sexual exploitation as the “predominant form of modern slavery” in several countries including Britain, Belgium and Portugal.

Portugal’s human trafficking observatory said authorities conducted 4,539 raids and inspections in 2017 at farms and other premises including shops suspected of exploiting labor. The number of known victims rose from 86 in 2010 to 175 in 2017.

The latest figures for 2018 are not yet out but Pereira said the numbers did not reflect the true scale of the scourge.

“SEF doesn’t have the capacity to inspect most properties where workers are being abused,” he said, as it had less than 20 inspectors available to probe Portugal’s interior.

Labor trafficking has risen as Portugal’s native population has aged and declined due to falling birth rates and emigration to more prosperous northern EU countries.

Another factor has been depopulation of the rural interior as young people leave for cities in search of better-paid jobs.

Meanwhile, agricultural exports have boomed in recent years and large farms need ever more cheap labor.

“The situation is worrying, particularly in sectors where there are not enough workers,” said Pereira, pointing to seasonal jobs including olive and strawberry picking.

“That’s where you find trafficking and exploitation.”

(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Axel Bugge and Mark Heinrich)

Major European nations recognize Guaido as Venezuela president

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Jose Elas Rodriguez and Sudip Kar-Gupta

MADRID/PARIS (Reuters) – Ten European nations joined the United States in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president on Monday, heightening a global showdown over Nicolas Maduro’s socialist rule.

France, Spain, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands’ coordinated move came after the expiry of an eight-day ultimatum for Maduro to call a new election.

The Venezuelan leader, accused of running the OPEC nation of 30 million people like a dictatorship and wrecking its economy, has defied them and said European rulers are sycophantically following President Donald Trump.

Guaido, who leads the National Assembly, declared himself caretaker leader last month in a move that has divided international powers and brought Venezuelans onto the streets.

Trump immediately recognized him but European Union countries were more hesitant.

Russia and China, which have poured billions of dollars of investment and loans into Venezuela, are supporting Maduro in an extension of their geopolitical tussle with the United States.

“From today, we will spare no effort in helping all Venezuelans achieve freedom, prosperity and harmony,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, urging fair elections and humanitarian aid.

In response, Maduro accused “cowardly” Spain of taking a “malign” decision. “If one day there is a coup, if one day there is a gringo military intervention, your hands will be stained with blood, Mr. Pedro Sanchez,” he said in a speech.

Maduro, 56, a former union leader, bus driver and foreign minister, replaced former president Hugo Chavez in 2013 after his death from cancer. But he has presided over an economic collapse and exodus of 3 million Venezuelans.

He accuses Washington of waging an “economic war” on Venezuela and harboring coup pretensions aimed at gaining control over its oil. Venezuela’s oil reserves are the largest in the world but production has plunged under Maduro.

“ILLEGITIMATE, KLEPTOCRATIC REGIME”

Critics say incompetent policies and corruption have impoverished the once-wealthy nation while dissent has been brutally crushed.

A draft EU statement said the 28-member bloc would “acknowledge” Guaido as interim president, but formal recognition was a prerogative of individual states.

“The oppression of the illegitimate, kleptocratic Maduro regime must end,” said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt as he announced London was recognizing Guaido.

Russia accused Europe of meddling.

“Imposing some kind of decisions or trying to legitimize an attempt to usurp power is both direct and indirect interference,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Caracas pays both Russian and Chinese loans with oil.

Maduro won re-election last year, but critics say the vote was a sham. Two opposition rivals with a good chance of winning were barred, while food handouts and other subsidies to hungry Venezuelans were linked with political support.

Italy’s 5-Star Movement, which makes up half of the ruling coalition, dissents from the European stance, saying it would not recognize self-appointed leaders.

But its governing partner, the League, disagrees.

Guaido told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera that he would do everything possible to secure Italian support.

In addition to European pressure, a bloc of Latin American nations plus Canada were to meet on Monday seeking to maintain pressure on Maduro.

“All these shameless people are clinging to power,” said Luis, a 45-year-old Venezuelan outside the consulate in Madrid. “Let them hold elections so they see they won’t get even 10 percent of the votes.”

Italy’s SkyTG24 channel quoted Maduro as appealing to the Pope to help dialogue ahead of what he hoped would be a “peace conference” led by Mexico and others on Feb. 7. Conscious of the collapse of a past Vatican mediation bid, foes say Maduro uses dialogue to play for time and regroup when on the back foot.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Holden in London; Jose Elias Rodriguez in Madrid; Andrew Osborn and Thomas Balmforth in Moscow; Andrei Khalip in Lisbon; Steve Scherer in Rome; Alissa de Carbonnel and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Portugal’s interior minister resigns after deadly wildfires

Smoke and flames from a forest fire are seen near Lousa, Portugal, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal’s Interior Minister Constanca Urbano de Sousa resigned on Wednesday after wildfires killed more than a hundred people in the past months.

Hundreds of fires have raged across northern and central Portugal since Sunday after the driest summer in nearly 90 years, killing at least 41 people and overwhelming firefighting and rescue services. In June, a forest fire killed 64 people.

The Interior Ministry is in charge of firefighters, the police and civil protection agency, which have all faced criticism after the fires.

In her resignation letter, the minister said: “I didn’t have the political and personal conditions to continue in my post.”

Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in a statement he accepted the minister’s resignation.

An opposition politician launched a motion of no-confidence in the Socialist government on Tuesday.

This year’s fires have burned a total of 350,000 hectares, the worst since 2003.

(Reporting By Axel Bugge; Editing by Janet Lawrence)