Our family has been travelling throughout Europe for the last year and we currently find ourselves on a farm in Evora, Portugal amidst the Coronavirus outbreak.
At present the number of confirmed cases in the country are still relatively low and to date there have been thirty fatalities. On Thursday the 12thMarch the President addressed the nation and announced that as of Monday the 16thMarch all schools, colleges and nurseries would shut until at least the 9thof April. The number of people allowed in supermarkets or shopping centres would be limited and restaurants and cafes were to run at a maximum of 2/3 their capacity. Visits to retirement homes would be limited and closely monitored. Summer festivals have been cancelled and popular tourist attractions have closed their doors to the public. In the last week the situation was upgraded to a state of emergency and the country is at present on full lockdown.
So what is the mood on the street in a country with an ageing population and an economy that was just beginning to recover and his heavily reliant on tourist trade? Well, for the most part, it seems to be business as usual. You see, the Portuguese have a wonderful attitude in the face of adversity. Regardless of the situation they tend to just keep going. Yes they are taking this pandemic seriously and yes, they are heeding the governments advice. There are very few people on the streets (only those leaving home to purchase essentials), social gatherings are on hold and people are practicing social distancing and self isolation.
But supermarket shelves are stocked, there are no signs of the crazy panic buying that we are seeing reported in other countries and there are measures in place. Just yesterday we headed to our closest Intermarché in Arraiolos. There was a queue of 6 people standing outside the store and 2 police officers at the entrance to assist supermarket staff in ensuring that no more than 15 people were inside the store at any one time. There were notices on the door with updated trading hours, hand sanitiser at the entrance and all the staff were wearing latex gloves. But despite all of this there was also a sense of calm. People were laughing and smiling and taking this new normal in their stride. Will things get worse? Without a doubt but in situations like these we have to take each day as it comes.
I spoke to a couple of people in different parts of Portugal to gauge whether what we were experiencing was an accurate account of the mood in the country and here’s what they had to say:
Ann Malan (68) South African expat, Madeira
‘Madeira is an all year round tourist destination but specifically a winter destination because of the 20°C average daytime temperatures during the winter months and the amazing Levada hiking trails . So the Island, up until the 1st week in March, was packed with tourists. When the Coronavirus panic broke out in Europe it was essential for this small island (with one government hospital) to jump into action.
The first steps were to protect the residents. The number of incoming flights and cruise ships arriving were decreased. The first case was diagnosed on the 17th of March. With immediate effect, all schools, tourist hot spots, markets, restaurants, bars, gyms, coffee shops/cafes were closed. Only supermarkets, small private grocery stores, pharmacies and Centros’ de Saude (doctors surgeries) remain open. Depending on the size of the stores, a limited amount of people are admitted at any one time. Others queue outside maintaining 1.5m social distance. Police have been patrolling ocean promenades and small village gathering squares asking people to go home.
As of the 19th of March, everyone has been told to stay at home. At present we have enough produce in the stores but are unable to find hand sanitizer. Our local grocery/hardware shop owner convinced me to buy a litre of ‘aguardente’ (high proof alchohol) to use as a sanitizer and general surface cleaner.
Being senior citizens with underlying medical issues is scary at the moment, but we are trying to stay upbeat and follow all the safety instructions as best we can. We do, however, count ourselves fortunate in that we have a large garden to get fresh air, chores to keep us busy and a deserted mountain path to take the dogs walking.’
Ricardo Godinho (30), Lisbon-
‘My generation never faced such a thing like this. Some people say we are under a biological war where the enemy is a disease. I consider myself lucky, compared to many others, since I am able to work remotely. I try to keep my routine- getting dressed as if I was taking the bus and going to work. At the end of the day I do 20 minutes of yoga and force myself to eat on the balcony so that I ensure I get some light and fresh air. The difference in my routine is that I’m not leaving the 60 square meters that make up my apartment. Yesterday I went outside for the first time in many days to buy food. The supermarket doors were closed and they were only accepting two people at a time. There was a huge line of people covered in masks, afraid of contact and keeping a safe distance between one another. On the other hand I’ve realised all the good that comes out of a situation like this. Creative events and ideas announced, live music online for free, virtual museum tours and online books and movies. I’ve realised that people in the same buildings are caring for each other. They tend to ask if everything is ok and they offer to do shopping for the neighbourhood. Last Sunday at 10pm every single person went to their window and we started a big applause for the health workers- it was really heartwarming.
One thing is for sure here in Portugal, either in joy or bad times, we will always be the same happy, optimistic and enjoyable people full of ‘saudade’ and we will never lose our smiles.’
The Portuguese have a simple yet apt saying which they use in times of trouble ‘E a vida’ which translates to ‘That is life’. It’s a saying that I have chosen to adopt because in times of hardship and suffering sometimes the best thing you can choose to do is hold up your hands and accept that some things are out of our control. We should try our best to steer clear of negativity and finger pointing. Attempting to find someone or something at fault will do little to help our situation. Let’s come together, let’s fight together and let’s come out of this stronger.
*Figures accurate at time of publication