Portugal’s healthcare system was on the verge of collapse. Hospitals in the capital Lisbon were flooded and authorities were asking people to treat themselves at home. In the last week of January, nearly 2,000 people died as the virus spread.
The country’s vaccine program was in turmoil, so the government turned to Vice Admiral Henrique Gveia e Melo, a former submarine squadron commander, to correct the ship.
Eight months later, Portugal has become one of the world’s leading vaccination countries, with approximately 86% of its 10.3 million population fully vaccinated. According to Gveia e Melo, about 98% of all vaccinated people, or people over the age of 12, are fully vaccinated.
“We believe we have reached the stage of mass protection and almost herd immunity,” he said. “Things look very good.”
On Friday, Portugal ended almost all of its coronavirus restrictions. The number of new cases plummeted to about 650 per day, with few deaths.
In many Western countries with abundant vaccine supplies, vaccination rates have peaked and more than 20% of the population is still unprotected. As a result, other governments are seeking possible insights from Portugal, watching closely what happens when almost all eligible individuals are protected.
False dawns in the coronavirus pandemic are as common as a new wave of nightmarish infections. As a result, Portugal may still see a setback as delta variants continue to spread globally.
There are signs of concern from Israel and elsewhere that the protection provided by the vaccine may diminish over time, intensifying global debate about who and when to provide booster shots.
Portugal may soon begin to provide boosters to the elderly and those who appear to be clinically vulnerable, Gveia e Melo said, and he is confident that they will all be reachable by the end of December. rice field.
But for now, as bars and nightclubs are vibrant, infections are declining, and deaths are plummeting, even after encountering many of the same hurdles that plagued others, the country’s The vaccination drive was successful.
The same flood of false information about vaccines filled Portuguese social media accounts. The country is run by a minority leftist government, reflecting its political division. And, according to polls, there was widespread doubt about the vaccine when it first arrived.
Gveia Emero is believed to have turned it around. With a background in tackling complex logistical tasks in the military, he was appointed to lead the National Immunization Task Force in February.
At a height of 6 feet and 3 inches, the Admiral emphasized wearing only combat uniforms in many public and television appearances as he attempted to essentially draft the country into one collective pandemic response unit.
“The first thing to do is to make this a war,” Gveia e Melo said in an interview, recalling how he worked. “I use military language as well as war language.”
Politicians around the world have evoked similar martial arts rhetoric, but he said that it is important for his success that he is widely seen as being separated from politics.
He quickly formed a team of about 30 people, led by elite military personnel, including mathematicians, doctors, analysts, Portuguese Army, Air Force, and Navy strategic experts.
Asked what other countries could do to strengthen their vaccination efforts, he did not hesitate to give the best advice.
“They need to find people who aren’t politicians,” he said.
Before the pandemic, Portugal was fortunate to have a strong national vaccination program. It arose from the devastating experience of the fight against polio, which still influenced the country after the birth of Gveia Emero in 1960. He remembers when the daughter of a family friend got sick because of illness and subsequent suffering.
“Vaccine suspects and vaccines are a minority in Portugal and less vocal than many other countries,” said Manuela Yvone da Cunha, a Portuguese anthropologist who studied the anti-vaccination movement. Stated.
Leonor Bereza, a former Portuguese health minister and now chairman of the Champarimo Medical Foundation, said the Portuguese deployment clearly benefited from discipline due to the nomination of military officers.
“He has developed a communication policy about what is happening that gives trust and trust,” she said.
The Task Force devised the most efficient system for safely flushing most people through the inoculation center, so they used the army to build confidence in the system. After the soldiers were shot, people could see the vaccine safe as a soldier.
At the same time, the Task Force emphasized showing doctors and nurses to take shots to bring the vaccine safety message home.
In other countries, vaccine campaigns feature doctors, nurses, police officers and soldiers, but Gouveia e Melo said message consistency is important.
Still, there were signs of increasing resistance as the campaign moved to the younger age group in the summer (less than half of the general public was vaccinated).
On a submarine, the Admiral said you are on a slow ship trying to catch a faster ship.
“You have to position yourself and be smart about how to do it, and you need to seize the opportunity when it arrives,” he said.
In July, Goubeia e Melo seized such an opportunity.
Protesters were blocking the entrance to the Lisbon vaccination center, so he wore combat uniforms and went there without security details.
“I went through these crazy people,” he said. “They started calling me’murderer, murderer’.”
As the TV camera rotated, the Admiral stood up calmly.
“I said the murderer was a virus,” recalled Gveia e Melo. He said the true murderers would be those who would live like the 13th century without the concept of reality.
“I tried to communicate in a very true and honest way about all my questions and problems,” he said.
But not everyone welcomed his approach.
“There is really no culture to ask the authorities,” said Laura Sanchez, a clinical psychologist who criticized Portugal’s mass vaccination deployment as too militaristic and called for the exclusion of young people.
“And the way he always wore a camouflage army suit to make him look like he was at war, and the words used by the media and politicians, tend to follow and not follow. It contributed to the fear of being there. Question, “she said.
Nevertheless, public messaging campaigns, including aggressive television and media blitz, have made steady progress.
“Initially, about 40% of people weren’t sure,” said Goubeia e Melo. Currently, polls show that only 2.2% do not want vaccines, he said.
When he resigned from the Task Force this week, the Admiral said he felt the country was on track. But as a submarine, he warned that vigilance would continue to be essential to ensure that he would win the war.
© 2021 The New York Times Company