Portugal is close to achieving its goal of fully immunizing 85% of the population against COVID-19 within nine months. Other countries across Europe and beyond are curious about how it was achieved.
Rear Adm. Henrique Gouveia and Melo deserve a lot of the credit. The naval officer, along with his team representing the three branches and armed forces, took over the vaccination rollout in February. This was perhaps the most intense moment in Portugal’s history due to the pandemic.
The county may be only days away from reaching its goal. According to Our World In Data, 84% of the population had been fully vaccinated as of Wednesday. This is the highest global level.
In addition to the increasing number of shots, both the COVID-19 infection rate (and hospitalizations) have fallen to their lowest levels for nearly 18 months.
Thursday’s announcement by the government indicated that most of its COVID-19 restrictions would be removed starting October 1, but face masks will still need to be worn in public transit, hospitals, care homes and shopping malls.
This would be a welcome move for many countries that are still under the deadly delta virus and have not yet completed their vaccinations.
Gouveia e Melo, previously unknown outside of the military, is now a household name. She has made it a point to appear on television frequently to address public concerns about the vaccine program.
People often greet him in the streets, wanting to say thank you, even though he is wearing a mask.
He says, “People are very kind.” The 60-year-old officer insists he is only “the tip of an iceberg” and that there are many others who share the credit.
While military involvement in the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination is common elsewhere, it’s not unusual for Portugal to do so.
It was a smart decision. Although Gouveia e Melo’s group works closely with police, health authorities, and town councils to provide services, military expertise has been invaluable.
He said that military personnel are used to working in stressful environments. They are organized, well-organized and have good logistics.
Gouveia e Melo was the one who set the tone for the rollout, with his straightforward approach and emphasis upon discipline. Many people who were worried about not getting vaccinated on time loved his straight-talking style.
He spoke out to The Associated Press about how it was intimidating to replace a political appointee that had quit after three months.
Portugal was at the worst of the pandemic and had public hospitals that were close to collapse. Promised vaccine delivery weren’t coming. The public was being threatened by jockeying for shots, which could undermine the trust in the rollout.
Gouveia e Melo stated that “I felt as if I had the eyes and ears of 10 million people” referring to Portugal’s population.
His 42-year military service helps to explain his ability to handle the pressure.
He was a submarine commander and was once in charge of two vessels simultaneously.
Gouveia e Melo was also a captain of a frigate and led Euromarfor, Europe’s Maritime Force. He has logged the most time at sea of any Portuguese naval officer.
He has been wearing combat fatigues since he took over the rollout of the vaccines. He stated that he wanted to convey the message that this was a call for arms.
He says, “This uniform…was symbolic to people understand the need to roll up their sleeves and fight this disease.”
Gouveia e Melo ended Portugal’s initial attempts to piggyback upon established vaccination strategies such as the ones used each year for flu shots in small, public health centres. A very different approach was required to meet the demands of speed and scale in order to address COVID-19.
Portugal started using large sports facilities in the country to create what Gouveia e Melo called a production line: a reception area, a waiting area, a processing area, and cubicles for injections. To determine the fastest flow of people through buildings, he used soldiers at the Lisbon military hospitals as guinea-pigs.
He described a “tsunami,” or a flood of vaccine delivery in June as a major boost, which enabled a shift to a higher gear.
Tiago Correia is an associate professor in international health at Lisbon’s New University Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He believes that Gouveia e Melo’s role in the rollout success was exaggerated.
Correia explains that the traditional Portuguese consenting attitude to national vaccination programs is a key factor. For example, the country’s measles, rubella and mumps vaccination rate is 95%. This is one of the highest in Europe and there is no anti-vaccination movement.
Correia said that Gouveia e Melo was able to “cut through the politics” and ensure public confidence in the rollout despite this, citing Correia.
When he visits vaccination centers or poses for selfies, Gouveia e Melo receives spontaneous applause. He has been featured in TikTok videos, poems and photos.
A drawing that a child gave him as a gift is displayed on his desk’s wall. It reads “Obrigado”, which means “Thank you”.
Gouveia e Melo made a Tuesday visit to a Lisbon University vaccine center and gave out a cloth crest he had designed for the rollout. Many wore the emblem to represent the 4,700+ people who worked in Portugal’s vaccine centres. It depicts a three-headed, armed hydra lunging at virus cells.
Claudia Boigues (53 years old) waited in the recovery area alongside her 15-yearold son, who had just been vaccinated. She said that she was amazed at the speed of the rollout.
She said, “I didn’t think we’d reach 85 percent.” “But now, we deserve congratulations.”
Gouveia e Melo did not identify other countries because they were not able to make their requests public. They have also asked Portugal about the effort.
Gouveia e Melo is soon to be able say “mission accomplished” for the immediate goal. He isn’t fazed by the fact that there are still virus variants in Portugal, but he has significant vaccination hesitancy from some wealthy countries.
He says, “We have won a war.” “I don’t know if the war against the virus has been won. This is a global war.