As of the 29th of September, 85.2% of the Portuguese population was fully vaccinated against COVID-19. They have pushed well above the EU average of 62.7%, and Portugal now has the highest vaccination rate in the world. But how did this happen? Until a few short months ago, Portugal was lagging behind countries like the UK and the US. Now they have surged ahead of everyone else. Because of this, people have started to wonder what Portugal is doing differently. How has Portugal managed to vaccinate so much of its population?
In my opinion, a key portion of their success lies in the depoliticisation of the COVID-19 vaccine. Yes, it is a big point of discussion in politics, but politicians have not been running the vaccination programme. Vice Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo took charge of the vaccine rollout in February, and despite his recent growth in popularity, he insists that he is not interested in following a political career. He has successfully separated vaccination from politics, which has arguably made people more willing to get vaccinated. We all know that politicians aren’t always honest – they tend to act in their best interests, not in the interests of the general population. They were the ones who curbed people’s freedoms in the pandemic, and that has compounded the distrust people feel for their governments. If you don’t trust someone, why would you do what they tell you to? In fact, I’d say that this is a key reason why the anti-vax movement in a lot of western countries has so much traction. A lot of healthcare systems are so intertwined with politics that people are unable to separate the two, and so the same distrust that is levelled at politicians is directed towards healthcare. By contrast, the vaccine rollout in Portugal was led by a Naval Officer with the assistance of other branches of the military as well as thousands of volunteers from the wider community.
Additionally, most political parties in Portugal have shown a united front during the pandemic. Apart from Chega, an extreme right-wing party, all parties have agreed on the importance of getting vaccinated against COVID-19. From the PCP (Portuguese Communist Party) to the CDS (Christian conservative party), there has been a consensus that the vaccine is safe and necessary, and this has undoubtedly helped to push the process along. The public saw politicians unite against a common enemy – the pandemic – and because of this, there wasn’t the same spread of mixed messaging and misinformation as in a lot of other countries around the world.
Unfortunately, though, most countries will find it impossible to follow Portugal’s example at this stage in the vaccine rollout. The anti-vax community in a lot of western countries is just too large and influential, and political parties are too divided in their views. There is so much misinformation being spread in some countries, that the only solution may be the least popular one.
In the UK, for example, I’d argue that the main problem has been the removal of restrictions. For most people, life has gone back to normal. The pandemic is a thing of the past, so why should they get vaccinated? COVID clearly isn’t a problem anymore (note the sarcasm), so what reason does the average person have to get the vaccine? Part of Portugal’s success is owed to the restrictions that still loom over people’s heads (although not for much longer).
Until September, masks were required while walking around the streets, and only at the start of October, now that Portugal has reached their goal of vaccinating 85% of the population, are mask restrictions being eased more widely. Significantly, these plans were announced in August, but they were contingent on vaccine uptake. This meant that if people wanted to get their lives back to normal, they should probably get vaccinated.
Even further, until mid-September, people who wanted to eat at a restaurant or go to a bar on weekends had to either have proof of vaccination or had to have proof of a negative COVID test.
These decisions would be easily reproducible in most countries, and quite honestly, should be. The UK’s decision to remove basically all restrictions was a big error. There is no motivation for people who are on the fence about the vaccine to actually get it. We have enough vaccines and – theoretically – the ability to disperse them, but now so many vaccines are going to waste.
Unless the UK government radically changes its approach, there is no chance that they will catch up to Portugal. COVID cases will continue to fluctuate, and the NHS will be pushed to its limits again. Until new restrictions are put into place that encourage people to get vaccinated, no matter how unpopular they might be, I don’t see the UK making much progress on this front. And to be honest, we might as well just send most of our vaccines to places that actually need them, rather than letting them go to waste in storage. Because they certainly won’t be put to good use here.
Image via Pxfuel