Portugal seems to be doing pretty well against Covid-19 since mid-2021. The government eased most containment restrictions and no lockdowns seem necessary for the winter of 2021. At the time of writing, this is how the active cases chart looks like:

Blue graph: in-hospital cases. Red line: cases involved intensive care

So, what could be the story behind this success?

Low-Quality Leadership During a Crisis

During a crisis, poor leaders cast a darker shadow than in regular times. In contrast, great leaders shine brighter than ever.

The lousy quality of government leadership (mostly incompetent, sometimes corrupt), especially in the health ministry, undoubtedly held Portugal back in its battle against Covid-19. For instance, these defects seem to have played a significant role in setbacks in preventive measures. On the one hand, authorities delayed normalizing mask-wearing, astoundingly ignoring expert recommendations. And on the other hand, the sluggish and wasteful advent of the national vaccination effort. Finally, in November 2020, the government created the vaccination “Task Force.”

This effort started off comprising mainly healthcare workers and managers from the national healthcare system (Serviço Nacional de Saúde, or SNS for short). Government officials initially helmed the task force. During its early months, it was vaccinating people too slowly to counter the pandemic. In some instances, the lack of proper planning and organization manifested in symptoms such as thousands of thawed vaccines spoiling.

Luís de Camões, the 16th-century Portuguese epic poet, pretty much sums up the woes of most of this nation’s history (and many others for that matter) and specifically the Task Force’s initial floundering during the pandemic crisis: 

O fraco rei faz fraca a gente forte. | A mediocre king (or leader) undermines a great people.

However, the government, perhaps deliberately heeding Camões’ wisdom or as an act of desperation, made a good call among the many bad decisions. Specifically, they put a competent leader, vice-admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo, in charge of the national vaccination efforts, after the resignation of the previous leader, the secretary of state Francisco Ramos.

Good Quality Leadership During a Crisis

Gouveia e Melo arrived at the helm with four decades of military officer training in leadership and organization. He also brought 32 highly trained comrades whose competence he knew deeply from their shared experience in the navy. He famously wore a military uniform with a camouflage pattern while leading the Task Force to successfully vaccinate most of Portugal’s population between February 3rd and September 28th. 

If you go back to the first graph in this article, you can see how poorly Portugal was dealing with Covid-19 during February. The nation’s health system was dealing with the absolute highest peak of hospitalizations during the entire pandemic.

Gouveia e Melo, during one of the briefing meetings to his task force officers to enable Portugal to beat Covid-19.
Gouveia e Melo, during one of the briefing meetings with the vaccination task force.

The municipalities helped the Task Force by converting large buildings (e.g., sports venues) into large-scale vaccination centers. Additionally, local healthcare institutions and healthcare professionals voluntarily placed their resources and personnel at the service of the mission. And finally, Task Force’s leader and his comrades endowed the whole enterprise with remarkable military discipline and competence.

Without the usual organizational fluff of government policy implementation, these military men teamed up with healthcare professionals, devised uncomplicated plans, and rapidly executed them. The result? The Task Force vaccinated the population at a blindingly fast pace.

According to Gouveia e Melo, the required ingredients for the mission’s success were three. Firstly, effective leadership. Secondly, a clear chain of command. Thirdly, organizational integrity. Fourthly, precisely stated goals.

Of course, much of the credit is due to the Portuguese population. If the people ever considered or were exposed to the conspiracy theories of anti-science, denialism, or antivaccination, almost everyone living in Portugal would have none of it. In short, the population overwhelmingly adhered to the vaccination program.

Confronting Challenges with Discipline and Courage

Their mission pitting Portugal against Covid-19 wasn’t all smooth sailing. The Task Force faced difficulties. For instance, the team’s primary asset, the national healthcare system (SNS), was unfortunately fraught with brittleness due to decades of mismanagement. Gouveia e Melo’s testimony is disquieting: “the SNS is very fragmented, unstructured, and regionalized.” The poor shape of the SNS made it necessary for us to create a “central nervous system” to ensure the vaccination plan was effective.

The Task Force also encountered, unavoidably, the “denialists.” In other words, people who espouse the belief the virus is harmless, and vaccines are harmful. Gouveia e Melo literally confronted a gathering of “ denialists ” grouped outside of a vaccination facility. After his colleagues suggested that he enter the building through the backdoor or wait for the police to escort him, The Task Force’s leader responded instead with bravery. He said: “I will go straight through their crowd like a ship, pushing them with its bow.” and then he proceeded to confront head-on the people that hated him the most in the entire nation. Although he courageously afforded them just the opportunity, no one dared deliver him a blow.

Thus, live on national TV the whole country witnessed how denialists are ultimately victims of cognitive dissonance. In other words, they are demonstrably scared of the ultimate consequences of their own beliefs.

How to Deal with Denialists?

In retrospect, Gouveia e Melo said: “All the nutcases that believe the virus is harmless are also ‘enemies.’ It is crucial to afford them as least maneuvering space as possible.” “Every single person will be forcefully immunized, whether by the virus or by the vaccine. If they want to wait, they can do as they please.”

This idea resonates profoundly with ancient wisdom from a scholar and philosopher of ancient Greece:

In retrospect, Gouveia e Melo said: “All the nutcases that believe the virus is harmless are also ‘enemies.’ It is crucial to afford them as least maneuvering space as possible.” “Every single person will be forcefully immunized, whether by the virus or by the vaccine. If they want to wait, they can do as they please.”

This idea resonates profoundly with wisdom from a scholar and philosopher of ancient Greece:

“Keep well out of the sun, then, so long as your principles are as pliant as wax.”

– Epitectus, Discourses III, 16.10

Contrast the brittle, waxy principles Epitectus was criticizing, with the words of the Task Force’s leader:

“When we believe in something, we must suffer the consequences, whichever they might be. And I have no fear and will go through (the denialists crowd) both when I enter the building and when I leave it.
Denialism and obscurantism are the actual killers. More than eighteen thousand people have died (in Portugal only) due to this pandemic. Obscurantism can help the pandemic.”

– Vice-Admiral Gouveia e Melo on August 2021

The Bottom-line – The Results

When the nation surpassed 70% fully vaccinated population, the effects of herd immunity kicked in. Thus, incidence fell abruptly in all regions of the country. During the peak of vaccination rate, during July of 2020, this nation of roughly ten million people, had 300 vaccination centers immunizing 160 thousand people on a single day, one million vaccines administered in a single week.

After the astounding success of achieving complete vaccination of roughly 85% of the population, the vice-admiral was recognized as a national hero, having received several distinctions, such as a golden globe for “merit and excellence.” Gouveia e Melo once again showed signs of authentic leadership by his humbleness in receiving the honors. Moreover, he took advantage of the reception speech to recognize the hard work of all that worked with him. He stressed that the Portuguese success in the battle against Covid-19 is just a mere battle in the world war against the disease. Gouveia e Melo ended the speech by highlighting that every human life is important regardless of latitude and longitude.

A Hero’s Rest and the Return to Normalcy?

On September 28th, 2021, the vice-admiral declared the end of the Task Force with the following words:

“I thank the Portuguese population for their contribution to the vaccination process, to thank the health professionals, among them the nurses, but also all the others, the support workers, and the entire Ministry of Health, with all its agencies. (…) together we have done something that will go down in history. And now, I will say goodbye and return to the anonymity of my military functions, which is as it should be. Thank you very much for everything.”

As the government decrees the Task Force dissolved and Gouveia e Melo returns to the Portuguese Navy, the country has a transmission rate (Rt), at a hopeful value of 0.85. This figure means that, on average, every ten people with Covid-19 will infect between eight and nine other people. By contrast, if no vaccine coverage were available and the population took no action to stop the spread, the virus responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic, Sars-CoV-2, would have an R-value of three.

Take Home Notes

This individual and his 32-strong team made a stark difference during a crisis. The Task Force successfully turned around Portugal from a really bad place and helped it manage Covid-19 during a few months. They were so surgical in comparison to government officials and healthcare managers. The tables turned so astoundingly in favor of hope, and Gouveia e Melo seemed so randomly pulled out of the nation’s military. All this considered, two questions are practically begging to be asked:

1 – Are many other exceptional individuals obscurely working in the world’s military institutions without ever having a chance to embrace a mission for positive social impact?

2 – What social changes are needed to make governments mainly composed of exceptional individuals, such as the hero described in this story?

Has Portugal truly beaten the pandemic for Covid-19? Since SARS-CoV-2 evolves rapidly, Portugal will likely need additional shots to keep up with the new variants. Only time will tell.

References

1. BBC News. Coronavirus: What is the R number and how is it calculated? BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-52473523. Published March 26, 2021. Accessed November 6, 2021.

2. Duarte JC. Gouveia e Melo despe a farda para receber Globo de Ouro que vai dar ao Ministério da Saúde como “recordação de batalha.” Observador. Published October 4, 2021. Accessed November 6, 2021. https://observador.pt/2021/10/04/gouveia-e-melo-despe-a-farda-e-entrega-globo-de-ouro-ao-ministerio-da-saude-como-recordacao-de-batalha-que-todos-venceram-em-conjunto/

3. ECO. “Missão cumprida” de Gouveia e Melo em nove números. ECO. Published September 29, 2021. Accessed November 6, 2021. https://eco.sapo.pt/2021/09/29/missao-cumprida-de-gouveia-e-melo-em-nove-numeros/

4. Esri Portugal – Sistemas e Informação Geográfica, S.A. Evolução do Covid-19 em Portugal – Mobile. Published November 6, 2021. Accessed November 6, 2021. https://esriportugal.maps.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/e9dd1dea8d1444b985d38e58076d197a

5. Kotowicz A. Francisco Ramos. O eterno secretário de Estado com perfil de ministro, que uns dizem que uma queda mudou para melhor, outros para pior. Observador. Published February 4, 2021. Accessed November 6, 2021. https://observador.pt/especiais/francisco-ramos-o-eterno-secretario-de-estado-com-perfil-de-ministro-que-uns-dizem-que-uma-queda-mudou-para-melhor-outros-para-pior/

6. Lusa Agency. Covid-19: Gouveia e Melo diz que é hora de regressar ao anonimato das suas funções. Published September 28, 2021. Accessed November 6, 2021. https://www.saudemais.tv/noticia/34703-covid-19-gouveia-e-melo-diz-que-e-hora-de-regressar-ao-anonimato-das-suas-funcoes

7. Lusa Agency. Covid-19. Comunicação foi fundamental para o sucesso da vacinação, afirma Gouveia e Melo. Jornal Expresso. Published October 28, 2021. Accessed November 6, 2021. https://rr.sapo.pt/noticia/pais/2021/10/28/comunicacao-foi-fundamental-para-sucesso-da-vacinacao-diz-gouveia-e-melo/258649/

8. SIC Independent Television of Portugal. XXV Entrega dos Globos de Ouro termina com atribuição do Prémio de Mérito e Excelência ao vice-almirante Henrique Gouveia e Melo. SIC. Published October 4, 2021. Accessed November 6, 2021. https://observador.pt/2021/10/04/gouveia-e-melo-despe-a-farda-e-entrega-globo-de-ouro-ao-ministerio-da-saude-como-recordacao-de-batalha-que-todos-venceram-em-conjunto/

9. Simões S. Seis mil doses de vacinas foram desperdiçadas e deitadas fora. Ministério da Saúde nega. Observador. Published January 8, 2021. Accessed November 6, 2021. https://observador.pt/2021/01/08/seis-mil-doses-de-vacinas-foram-desperdicadas-e-deitadas-fora/

10. Gouveia e Melo: «Um líder não tem de ser popular, tem de ser justo. E íntegro. Se isto acontecer, dificilmente não vai ser seguido.» – Human Resources. Published October 29, 2021. Accessed November 30, 2021. https://hrportugal.sapo.pt/gouveia-e-melo-um-lider-nao-tem-de-ser-popular-tem-de-ser-justo-e-integro-se-isto-acontecer-dificilmente-nao-vai-ser-seguido/

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