Last week, Vice Admiral Henrique Gouvia e Mello, the coordinator of Portugal’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, said goodbye to most of his staff.
Then he went home and slept for 12 hours.
With more than 95 percent of its eligible population vaccinated, Portugal says it no longer needs a vaccine task force.
As Canada and other wealthy nations experience some stagnation in vaccine development, many are looking to Portugal for lessons. About 12 percent of eligible Canadians have not yet received a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 18 percent have not yet received their second dose.
When a Portuguese naval officer, Gouvia e Melo, took over the vaccine rollout from a political appointment in February, the program was “poor”, he says.
In the last week of January, Portugal was reporting more than 12,000 new COVID-19 cases and more than 200 deaths a day among its population of more than 10 million. Its health system was on the verge of collapse, ambulances carrying COVID patients had to Line outside hospitals, waiting for beds, and nearly 2,000 people died of COVID-19 in a span of one week.
“I had a feeling we had a big mountain to climb, and I couldn’t see the peak,” Gouvia e Mello told the Star in an interview this week.
In his 42-year military career, the 60-year-old officer has served as a submarine commander, captained a frigate, led the European Union’s maritime force and is the most at sea of any serving Portuguese naval officer. There is a record of logging in for hours. According to the Associated Press.
Gouvia e Mello attributes Portugal’s vaccine success to the military leadership on the rollout. Keeping politics out of public health helped build confidence in vaccines, he argues.
He said, initially, about 40 percent of the Portuguese population was skeptical, but by communicating clearly and calmly about the benefits of vaccines, and by employing wartime language to rally the population, he believes He believes he was able to change his mind.
Portugal is now the most vaccinated country on Earth, according to our world in data, more than 85 percent of its entire population have been vaccinated against COVID-19. On Friday, it lifted almost all COVID-19 restrictions, reopening bars and nightclubs that had been closed since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. About 600 new cases are being reported in the country a day, which is just five percent of its lifetime peak. , and hospitalizations have decreased dramatically. Portugal will begin giving seniors a third dose next week.
Gouvia e Mello used war-effort-created notions of solidarity and personal responsibility to persuade people to take the shot, he said.
“You are a warrior. You have to fight a war. Vaccinate yourself,” said the blue-eyed, salt-and-pepper admiral wearing his navy uniform during a Zoom conversation.
Other countries, including Canada, have engaged their military in vaccination – as of April, Ontario’s vaccine delivery task force was led by retired General Rick Hillier – but perhaps not on the scale that Portugal did.
There is no question of having a non-political leadership as the face of the pandemic effort helps build confidence, but it is natural for politicians to be at the forefront as they are money and policy makers, said Barry Peakes, public health expert. University of Toronto.
Politicians have largely led Canada’s vaccine rollout, with Liberal Cabinet Minister Anita Anand handling the purchase and distribution of the shots, and the premier setting policy and encouraging people to get excited.
Vaccination strategy has also been a hot-button political issue, with Prime Minister Trudeau often criticizing Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s recent election campaign for allowing her candidates to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. not be needed. Canada’s right-wing People’s Party, meanwhile, was able to rally the anti-Vax crowd and nearly triple its vote share from 2019.
Still, politics and vaccines are far less intertwined in Canada than they are in other countries, such as the US, Peckes said. He said he was not sure the military message would play out so well here.
“It’s not something that resonates for many Canadians.”
Henrique Barros, an epidemiologist at the University of Porto, disagrees with Gauvia e Mello’s framing of the pandemic effort as “war”. (With infectious diseases, there are no bad people or good people, they say, no winners or losers). He acknowledges that the military is well equipped to lead vaccination campaigns as they are trained to respond to emergencies, but credits Portugal’s effective rollout to local governments.
Gouvia e Mello describes itself as “the tip of the iceberg” in a team of military strategists, mathematicians and doctors, who coordinate with health ministry officials and local governments, about 300 vaccinations manned by thousands of doctors, nurses. Oversees the network of centers. and volunteers.
Barros said the underlying historical and social circumstances have also driven Portugal’s vaccine success. People generally accept the safety and efficacy of vaccines in Portugal, and there is no history of anti-vaccine movements. Beyond the COVID-19 Vaccine, Portugal has one of the highest rates of vaccine coverage in Europe.
“Vaccination was seen as something modern, something that would take you from a certain misery to a more optimistic state,” Barros said. Public health measures during the height of the pandemic, such as curfews and travel restrictions, also pushed people to receive the vaccine and saw it as “the key to a more normal life”.
That said, Portugal is not untouched by the misinformation and vaccine protests that have plagued other countries.
Gouvia e Mello described walking through an anti-vaccine demonstration in front of a vaccination center in Lisbon in July, where he calmly explained “the killer is the virus”, while protesters shouted “genocide” and “the killer” at him. .
But most of the reception has been positive. Gouvia e Mello has become a household name in Portugal, and standing six-foot-three, he is sometimes recognized on the street and thanked for his efforts.
During his leadership, he is often put “on the spot” by the media to explain things, but he never shied away from questioning, he said, “even in the more difficult moments.”
“You have to be very honest in the public eye.”
His advice to Canada and other countries trying to promote the vaccine?
“Explain till fatigue.”
Gouvia e Mello said he asks people to imagine that they are at a fork in the road. If they go one way – refusing the vaccine – they have a one in 500 chance of dying, according to Portuguese numbers. If they go the other way – and get the shot – they have a one in 500,000 chance. “If you’re smart or logical, which path do you want to take?” He asked.
He is a fan of innocence.
Meanwhile, Pax isn’t sure it’s that simple.
“I think we’ve actually already done that,” he said.
Now, the challenge is reaching specific communities that may have their own reasons to oppose vaccines, such as historical abuse by the government and doctors.
While his term as head of Portugal’s Vaccine Task Force is coming to an end, Gouvia e Mello said the war is not over, as long as rich countries continue to hoard vaccines while poor countries lack access. . He said that bridging this gap is a public health issue and a moral imperative.
“We talk a lot about morals in the Western world, but we have to practice these morals as well.”