LISBON, Portugal (AP) – In the Bairro do Zambujal residential project on the outskirts of Lisbon, residents’ behavior provides clues as to why this part of Portugal has become a hot spot for new COVID-19 cases and how the government is trying to channel its efforts rowing the new coronavirus is frustrated.
Many people in the project where about 6,000 people live ignore the authorities ‘recommendation to wear masks, said Maria Felicidade Nunes, president of the local residents’ association.
Some local stores don’t follow rules about how many customers can be in at once. Young people crawl in large groups at local cafes, she says.
“Some people like the rules, but others just don’t accept them,” Nunes told The Associated Press.
The four- and five-story apartment blocks that make up Bairro do Zambujal offer cheap housing for low-income families. They usually house large families who flee their homes to hang out with local friends and relations.
The project is located in the Amadora district, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the center of Lisbon. It is one of the five remote areas in the Lisbon metropolitan area where the number of new virus cases has continued to increase, while other parts of Portugal and Europe have seen the numbers drop in recent weeks.
For Portugal, the wave of new infections is the elephant in the room as the government touts the country as a safe place for tired Europeans to lock up.
By acting quickly during the first days of the pandemic, Portugal avoided the exponential rates of infections and deaths reported by other countries of the European Union, including neighboring Spain.
But since it came out of state of emergency on May 2 and was locked up for 45 days, the country has registered an average of 275 new cases per day. On Thursday, it reported 311 – 222 of them in the Lisbon metropolitan area.
The census shot the country of 10.3 million people among the European countries with the most new infections. It has a total incidence of 390 per 100,000 inhabitants.
“It is not a cause for concern, but it is clearly something to be concerned about,” says Dr. Ricardo Mexia, President of the Portuguese National Association of Public Health Doctors.
“Some Lisbon hospitals are nearing capacity,” Mexia told the AP, noting that there are enough hospital beds available outside the Lisbon region.
On average, about 70% -80% of daily confirmed new cases are detected in satellite cities, such as Amadora, around the Portuguese capital. Experts say a significant number of new infections are discovered in low-income families.
Some men continued to work in construction, and women used public transport to achieve service jobs even during closure. They often can’t afford to stop working because they have no contracts and don’t get paid if they don’t show up.
Health authorities have also identified nursing homes as breeding grounds for outbreaks, largely due to staff introducing the virus, and impromptu nighttime gatherings of youth in parks and beaches.
Frustrated at not being able to extinguish the hot spots through aggressive testing, tracing and isolation, the Portuguese government strengthened its response on Thursday by reintroducing restrictions in 19 of the 118 parishes in the Lisbon metropolis that were identified as problematic. They are among the most densely populated parts of the metropolitan area, comprising nearly 3 million people.
As of July 1, a five-person limit will be imposed in those parishes and residents can leave the house to work, shop, exercise, or help needy relatives. Shops must close at 8pm.
Consuming alcohol outdoors is prohibited, along with the sale of alcohol at gas stations, where young people often buy. More police will patrol the streets and cause people to wear masks in stores. People who gather in groups of more than five face individual fines of up to $ 500 ($ 560).
The government argues that the relatively high number of new cases discovered is due to its testing effort, averaging 98,000 tests per week, and rejects suggestions that the outbreak is getting out of hand. Officials also note in Portugal’s defense that the COVID-19 death rate is relatively low, in terms of the European Union, at 149 per million inhabitants.
In addition, the government points out that the country’s hospital admission rate for the coronavirus, 2.9% of those infected, means that public health care has addressed the outbreak. In total, Portugal reported just over 40,400 confirmed cases and 1,524 deaths.
But for Mexia, the president of the doctors’ association, the mistake lies in the “excessive confidence” of the authorities, after Portugal prevented a dramatic number of cases in March and April. He said this overconfidence led to inadequate planning for anticipated outbreaks, including insufficiently qualified workers to conduct contact detection.
Much is being asked whether the authorities can now make up for lost time and get a grip on the revival. Portugal’s economy relies heavily on tourism and the government has marketed the country as open to business.
Many hotels along the attractive beaches of the Algarve coast have a government-sponsored “Clean & Safe” seal to reassure tourists. Officials trumpeted Lisbon’s recent selection to host the European football elite tournament in August as a sign of confidence in Portugal – evidence, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said, “Portugal is a safe destination.”
“The problem right now,” said Expresso newspaper editor Ricardo Costa, Tuesday, “is that some figures contradict the (official) story of success, which is all about attracting tourists.”
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