Deadliest virus month piles strain on Portugal's government

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Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, right, talks to Prime Minister Antonio Costa, left, and Health Minister Marta Temido, center, at the end of a visit to the hospital in Lisbon, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Portugal's government is showing signs of strain as the country reels from almost two weeks at the top of the world rankings of daily new COVID-19 cases and deaths by size of population. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

LISBON – The pressure appears to be getting to Portugal’s government after almost two weeks at the top of the world rankings of daily new COVID-19 cases and deaths by size of population.

Recent flubs include mixed government messages on mask types and online teaching, regular pandemic news conferences discontinued without explanation, scant official information on what foreign help is coming and scandals over queue-jumping for vaccines. Then there's the recent disarray in parliament over which lawmakers will get the jab early, as well as a health chief’s sharp retort that finding fault with government pandemic planning is “criminal.”

Those episodes have combined to put the Portuguese government politically on the ropes in recent days, just as the country takes stock of last month’s devastating pandemic surge.

In January, Portugal recorded more than 5,000 death — close to half of its official pandemic total so far. Over the month, hospitalizations grew by 136% and patients in intenstive care units by 78%, pushing the public health system close to collapse.

Hopes rose Tuesday that the surge's peak may have passed, as the number of new daily cases fell for a fourth straight day. The 5,540 cases were roughly half the number reported on Tuesday last week. The intense pressure on Portuguese hospitals is unlikely to ease soon, however, because of a time-lag between new cases and hospitalizations.

Amid criticism that it has been caught flat-footed, the government has accepted help from Germany. On Wednesday, 26 German army medics, including eight doctors, nursing staff and a hygiene team along with medical equipment, are due in Lisbon to help out at hospitals.

But the Portuguese public found out about that from a detailed statement by German authorities. The Portuguese government was less than forthcoming about German help, only briefly confirming the news several hours later.

Requiring foreign help is a sensitive political issue for Portugal, recalling a 78-billion-euro ($94 billion) international bailout the country needed in 2011 amid Europe’s financial crisis. That was viewed as a national embarrassment.