Recently Portugal has been leading the world by a large margin in the rates of new coronavirus infections and deaths from Covid-19.

How was this achieved? The highly respected Forbes magazine said “Through a combination of good luck, early and decisive government action and the responsible behaviour of the Portuguese people, Portugal was spared the worst of the coronavirus’s devastation. Although the talk of a “Portuguese miracle” was somewhat overblown, the country never had the horrific case numbers and overwhelmed hospitals that its neighbours in southern Europe did. “

A Portuguese miracle

In April the President of the Republic praised political leaders and in particular the Government for having “listened to the experts” and “acted in unity” in the fight against Covid-19, saying that foreigners speak of a “Portuguese miracle”. He the added “it is good that they think so”, but “no, it is not a miracle, it is the result of a lot of sacrifice”.

“If this is a miracle, as others out there say, then we, the Portuguese people, have been a living miracle for almost nine centuries. If this is a miracle, the miracle is called Portugal”, he concluded.

“It is the result of, in these crucial stages, those with political responsibilities having listened to the experts, having acted in unity and having made this fight the fight of their lives, and, from the outset, the Prime Minister and, with him, the Government, as it is fair to recognise”, he praised.

‘Cama Solidária’

A recent report found that a majority of patients in ambulances outside one of the main hospitals were there out of an abundance of caution, rather than a dire health emergency. Triage systems were set up to quickly to decide which patients needed urgent attention. The oxygen scare was more of a technical problem than an outright shortage and was quickly resolved. A clever volunteer initiative, called Cama Solidária ("solidarity bed") allowed owners of camper vans to make their vehicles available to handle the overflow, or for exhausted healthcare workers who need a quiet place to get some rest.

No lockdown protests

There were no widespread anti-lockdown protests, as seen in the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria. Everyone seemed to agree on masks (even if they didn’t agree about the type of masks) and about the hard times ahead and the necessary sacrifices.

“The Portuguese people understood very clearly that if we want to survive this, we would have to do even more than the others in crushing the curve, in prolonging and pushing forward the number of new cases,” an official told POLITICO. “The country has shown tremendous solidarity.”

Portugal shut down schools when there were just 245 cases in the country. Spain already had 2,140 infections when most regional governments closed schools. Italy had over 2,500 cases before students were sent home.

Madrid also allowed over 100,000 people to attend an International Women's Day march, while Lisbon banned all public gatherings at an early stage in the epidemic’s evolution.

The state of emergency putting Portugal on lockdown was declared when the country had 448 cases. Spain took similar measures three days earlier with almost 10 times more cases; Italy had over 9,000 people infected by the time its nationwide lockdown.

Early lockdown helped

“The early implementation of measures can help explain the slower pace of the infection,” said Inês Fronteira, lecturer on international public health at Lisbon’s Universidade NOVA.

“The lockdowns in Spain and Italy were implemented at more or less the same point; we did it in a phase where there were still not so many cases, which was more effective in reducing the transmission.”

According to most media reports, Portugal is one of the few success stories in Europe on controlling the spread of the virus, and the country had a very low caseload, especially when compared with its neighbouring countries – surprising, considering that Portugal had lowest number of intensive care beds in Europe.

It’s also important to say that the vaccination programme was implemented and went into action very quickly. I am sure there will be one or two people who had a problem, but vaccination centres sprang up everywhere, and were run very efficiently. Over 87 percent of the population were vaccinated.

How did Portugal do it?

How has Portugal's response been different and how has it managed to avoid the high death tolls of neighbouring countries?

Filipe Froes, a doctor from the national Covid-19 task force, says Portugal had time to prepare for the outbreak, with the virus reaching the country later than in Spain and Italy. "We had precious days to implement a strategy that allowed us to prepare our hospital response".

"We also introduced the state of emergency and confinement measures earlier than these countries, so those measures had more impact."

This information is not personal opinion, though I agree with the opinions of the experts. It has been gathered from leading media and official sources. Portugal has been praised worldwide, and that’s a great compliment to both medical services and the government.


Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy. 

Paul Luckman