The Covid-19 endemic has arrived in Portugal. Here is what it looks like.

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LISBON — In this football-mad capital of a football-obsessed nation, the stadiums are full again. Portugal, a country ravaged earlier in the year by the Delta variant of the coronavirus, now has the highest Covid-19 vaccination rate in Europe and offers a glimpse of a country trying to cope with what looks like increasingly to an endemic virus.

Tens of thousands of screaming football fans crowded into the Estadio da Luz here on Wednesday to watch hometown favorites Benfica take on Bayern Munich. They gathered in the metro to the stadium, at the entrance as officials patted them and, after the game, in the food trucks where they gulped down sandwiches and beer as they tried to forget. the beating their team had just suffered.

The government recently lifted a 30% capacity limit in stadiums imposed to control Covid-19. But things have not returned to what they were: fans need a certificate proving they are vaccinated, recently recovered from the disease, or tested negative. Masks are compulsory in all stages.

Almost 100% of people over 50 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Portuguese government. For those aged 25 to 49 it is 95% and for those aged 12 to 17 it is 88%. Some 89% of the entire Portuguese population of 10 million have received at least one dose of the vaccine, not far from the rate in the world’s leading United Arab Emirates, compared to 65% in the United States. and 73% in the UK, according to the University of Oxford. Our world in data.

On October 1, Portugal abandoned most of its Covid containment rules, but in many ways life in Lisbon is a throwback to the deepest days of the pandemic. Hand pumps dispensing disinfectant gel are ubiquitous and some churches still suspend seats to ensure social distancing even though it is no longer required. The Covid-19 certificate is required during major events and masks are still mandatory on public transport, in schools for students aged 10 and over, and for employees of shops, restaurants and bars.

Portugal dropped most of its coronavirus restrictions on October 1.

Masks are always mandatory in the Lisbon metro and other public transport.

At the same time, the subways are full. Lisbon’s fleet of rickshaw taxis, known as the tuk-tuk in Thailand, take tourists through the narrow streets of the old town. Nightlife is in full swing in various parts of the city throughout the week, tram lines popular with tourists skip stops as they are packed with passengers, and almost every day a massive new cruise ship is docked at the port.

Portugal’s cautious return to normalcy, despite a vaccination rate envied by public health officials around the world, is seen as a possible path for other countries as their vaccinations increase and they consider when to drop their remaining restrictions. The Portuguese approach contrasts with that of the UK, where a combination of fewer people vaccinated and almost no restrictions has resulted in an increase in infections and an increase in the death rate.

“I need tourists otherwise I have no business but I watch the number of infections every day and if it increases even a little I get nervous,” said Paula Marques, who runs a souvenir shop in Lisbon. “I hope the pandemic is a thing of the past here in Portugal, but to be honest I’m still a little worried about what will happen as it gets colder.”

Portugal went through the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020 relatively unscathed. But a sharp spike in cases in November last year and then a wild wave in January shattered the illusion some here had that this tiny country tucked away in the southwest corner of Europe could escape the worst of the world. pandemic.

Last week, tourists invaded Lisbon’s Cais do Sodré district, a hotbed of nightlife.

At its peak in January, an average of around 290 people died each day in Portugal from the virus. Adjusted for population, this equates to over 9,500 in the United States. The worst daily weekly average in the United States has never exceeded 3,500 deaths.

Maria Mota, executive director of the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Lisbon, has an image indelibly etched in her memory of this period that still makes her nervous. Working late one night in her lab, from her window, she counted 52 ambulances lined up outside the emergency room of the country’s largest hospital, waiting to drop off patients.

Portugal is now in a “period of transition” which will likely demarcate the pandemic from the new reality of endemic Covid, Dr Mota said. With memories of the January trauma still fresh in the collective Portuguese memory and with question marks as to what will happen with the cold returning and the resumption of life inside, most people are likely to proceed. with caution, she said.

“No one will ever forget this last January, but now Covid is endemic and we have to learn to live with the virus,” Dr Mota said. “Almost the entire population is vaccinated here and the virus is still circulating, showing that it will not go away. “

As in other countries where a large part of the population is vaccinated, a stubborn persistence of infections in Portugal has not led to a significant increase in the rate of hospitalizations or deaths.

“Things are improving, but it’s slow,” said Miguel Campos, who drives tourists around Lisbon in a tuk-tuk. “We are taking baby steps. We have a mixture of optimism and hope that this return to normal will continue. “

“Things are improving, but it’s slow,” said rickshaw taxi driver Miguel Campos of the Covid-19 situation in Portugal.

Paula Marques, who owns a souvenir shop in Lisbon, said her business depended on tourism and was concerned that infections would increase when the weather got colder.

Before the pandemic, there were 800 rickshaw taxi drivers in Lisbon, but now only around 200 work weekdays and 500 at weekends, said Valentim Gaspar, another rickshaw taxi driver. For now, the balance between drivers and tourists makes it possible to earn a decent living, he said.

The Portuguese almost universally attribute their vaccination success to Henrique Gouveia e Melo, a former submarine commander who was brought in to lead the vaccination campaign after a shaky start. It projected confidence and tapped into the generally favorable attitudes of the population to vaccination, according to public health experts. The vaccine rollout began in January just as the worst of the pandemic was reaching its peak in Portugal, offering a clear incentive for anyone who may have been unsure of getting vaccinated.

On a football-mad continent, Portugal stands out for its attachment to sport, making the return to full capacity of the stadiums all the more symbolic for many people. Spain, which also has one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, recently regained full capacity in its stadiums, but the food still cannot be sold. This month, Italy increased the stadium capacity to 75% from 50%. In most of Germany there are still capacity limits.

“It’s time to open everything up because if someone hasn’t been vaccinated at this point then they’re not going to get the shot,” said Hugo Vale, a 32-year-old engineer, as he drank beer with friends outside the stadium before the Benfica-Bayern game.

Almost 100% of people over 50 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Portuguese government.

Write to Eric Sylvers at [email protected]

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