Portugal doesn’t often hit the top of the news cycle. Our part of Europe is not often talked about—countries like Italy, France, and Spain tend to capture the world’s attention instead. So it’s no surprise to me that few of my family, friends, and online community know what’s happening here.
Portugal did OK with COVID in 2020. 2021? Not so much.
Last year, I was proud of the work and commitment the Portuguese government put into controlling COVID. When I surveyed the world, I honestly felt we were in the safest, best place we could possibly be. Even with lockdown and schools closed, and regulations that impacted me personally, I trusted the government’s handling of this virus. It was such a wild, unknown period, 2020. We were all doing our best. I felt they were too.
The year progressed, and life began to reopen. Tourists started arriving. Here in the Algarve, where my family and I live, tourists are like blood to the body of this southern region of Portugal. The vast majority of the year-round population relies on their dollars and pounds and francs. Without tourists, the restaurants, Airbnbs, hotels, yoga studios, tour companies, and so many other businesses just can’t make it.
On top of that, Portugal is extraordinarily “disconnected” from a technology sense. While many businesses in the US and UK were able to easily pivot last year, it was a much bigger effort here. Many restaurants, for example, only accept cash. Other than Uber Eats, which significantly cuts into their already slim profits, there’s no centralized way to find out who delivers and who doesn’t. Tourism and other services rely on people walking by their stands at the marina or near the beach. Before COVID, grocery stores didn’t deliver.
But despite all the obstacles, businesses pivoted as best they could. Grocery stores launched online ordering and delivery. Once indoor dining resumed at limited capacity and tour companies were allowed to operate with social distancing, life started to feel almost back to normal . . . with masks. We have had a national mask mandate pretty much since scientists recommended them. Most people comply out of care for each other and the natural discipline and respectfulness of Portuguese culture.
Then, at the end of 2020, the government did something I’ll never understand. They basically told people to go celebrate Christmas. People were asked to be responsible, but travel restrictions were largely lifted. Families gathered for their traditional Christmas Eve celebrations. While I know many were careful—masks and gloves, windows open—others were not. Gatherings of dozens of people for hours at a time doesn’t help a pandemic go away.
My husband and I braced ourselves for what we knew would happen in early January. And sure enough, cases spiked.
Things are getting bad
By late January, we were number one in the world for the highest seven-day average of cases per 100,000 people.
Finally, Portugal was getting attention. Just not the kind we wanted.
As of today, we are back in full lockdown. Schools are closed. The streets are empty. Shops are shuttered. Fines are being doled out in crazy amounts: 500 euros for riding your bike too far from your home. People are getting questioned while out walking their dogs. We are required to carry proof of address, and if found to be in violation of the rules, we must pay the fine right away, on the spot, or face added administrative fees.
I get some of this. At least, kind of. We are in a scary place right now. The health system is overloaded. Hospitals are running out of oxygen. There are not enough doctors, even if there are enough hospital beds. The government is trying to figure things out. They haven’t ever dealt with something like this, and people weren’t complying, so they invoked fees to get people to listen and stay home. I understand their reasoning, even if I don’t agree with how they are going about dealing with this crisis.
But there are some things I just don’t understand. Like, for example:
- Grocery stores and restaurants close at 8 p.m. on weekdays and 1 p.m. on weekends. This accomplishes nothing except forcing giant groups of people to go to stores at the same time. Queues are endless. Portuguese culture includes a long lunch break, which means most people work until 7 p.m., so it’s impossible for them to go any other time except their lunch break, after work, or on the weekends. Last Sunday, we went to pick up a computer we’d ordered for our daughter’s online school and ended up leaving when we saw how long the line was. We guessed it would take 45 minutes to be allowed to enter the store.
- Online education has been banned until February 8. This includes private schools, who typically don’t follow the public education calendar except for national holidays. Most private schools have continued online learning anyway, because they recognize the detrimental impact of an interruption of education. I don’t understand why the government wasn’t ready to go online, when so many experts recognized it would happen eventually. And banning online education doesn’t make any sense to me.
- Stores are banned from selling non-food items, including books, toys, games, and clothes. I witnessed the weirdness of this firsthand when I went into a store the day before this rule went into effect. As I entered the store, employees were pulling books from the shelves and putting up big red “do not enter” signs barring access to the toy section. This rule is apparently to avoid harming local businesses that aren’t allowed to sell similar goods, but it’s instead harming the general population. Our kids are home, and we can’t buy books and toys? I can’t buy my kids clothes? Really? With our now-severed access to Amazon UK, and limited English book and toy options on other sites, we are really feeling this one.
- Restaurants are not allowed to sell drinks for takeaway, including at drive-throughs. Apparently people were congregating outside coffee shops, so they banned all drinks. Smoothies, sodas, and other up-sell items are an important part of restaurants’ bottom line. While I don’t personally care to be able to buy a drink right now, I recognize the impact on restaurant owners.
There is more I could go into, but these are the highlights, the ones that really impact us and our friends here, many who own restaurants, studios, shops, and other businesses.
Government aside, I still feel deep pride for the Portugal people and expats as a whole. And wow, the business owners here are just amazing. Every week, sometimes every day, rules change. And every time, they respond. They pivot. Rise up. Make it work. A year plus into this virus and we are still working together as a community. We are doing our best. Even if we don’t agree with the rules, we are uniting to get through this. If we can weather these next months, and tourism season can open with some normalcy, at least there is some purpose to our sacrifice.
Anchoring to gratitude
I wrote this post to process what I’m experiencing here. As a sort of diary entry. A way of remembering, because it’s so easy to forget.
But by the end, I found myself circling back to one thing: gratitude.
Portugal is still an amazing place that I love. I’d rather be here than home right now, with the exception of getting to see my family and friends (at a distance!). While the beaches are closed, they will reopen. While schools are online right now, someday our children will return to the classroom. While I’m uneasy with the authoritarian feel of the government right now, I have hope they will see reason and make better decisions going forward.
And I feel grateful. For my home. For my family. For my work. For the ability to connect with you through these posts, my podcast, and through my weekly emails. For financial security. For access to the internet and enough devices in our home for our daughter to continue her education. For my stay-at-home dad husband, who is way overwhelmed right now but trying his darnedest. For the support of our neighbors and friends, near and far. For you, because writing something you’re reading right now gives me all the feels.
So that’s that. My post about Portugal, what we’re experiencing, and what I’m grateful for. Here’s to fighting this virus and to a better 2021.
How about you? What are you experiencing right now in your part of the world? How are you anchoring to gratitude?