200-ish days later

It’s been a while since I wrote about the current state of affairs regarding COVID-19 here in Portugal, so I’m going to start by pointing you to the data I have and the dashboards I maintain, from which I got the following chart:

This is all the data I've collected from official sources since the 9th of March until today (coming on 200 days of manual entries).

Since this is a rolling average, the rather erratic government reporting is smoothed out over time.

But that last little nub on the far right of the graph is due to the fact that over the past few days we’ve had 418, 406 and 486 new cases, which is more than we had in May (480) and quickly catching up to the July peak (542).

So what hasn’t changed since my very first post on the matter?

Quite a lot, actually, given that we’re still stuck at home. But let’s go with what’s top of mind here.

Data Sources

For starters, DGS (the local NHS) continues to fail miserably where it regards providing usable reports, and is now making them worse.

On the 17th of August the format of the daily PDF reports (yes, PDF, still no CSV or actual tabular format) was changed to remove all tables with demographic data, replacing them with completely unreadable bar charts.

Ironically, there seems to be no shortage of government resources to put up multiple 2010-era WordPress websites crammed with splashy photos and videos “for awareness”, but nobody can apparently be bothered to publish a plain CSV.

For science.

It’s as if the people in charge still prefer to have pretty pieces of paper to wave about (since they are useless to work with), two full decades into the XXIst century.

So no, there is still no canonical dataset or API to access historical data, which is why I’ve kept copying it by hand from the PDFs1 for the past 193 days, every day, trying to fill in the blanks where appropriate.

And there were a lot of blanks.

Schools

School is starting over the next couple of weeks (some schools actually started this week), but DGS trotted only out a set of recommendations on the 4th, which was a bit late (to say the least).

The guidelines are (unsurprisingly) published as a 43-page PDF, and besides enforcing wearing masks for K122 upwards and touting a laughably minimalist approach at handling personal space (it’s not even mentioned in this specific document, but parroted by the Minister as being 1m between students), the rules explicitly state that “school closures are unwarranted unless in critical conditions”, which kind of sets the tone for the overall thing:

We are to trudge on regardlessi.e., parents shouldn’t be stuck at home minding kids who can’t attend school, but rather out and about working.

Personally, I find it laughable that the question of whether or not children are more or less infectious than adults is still being dealt with in a rather cavalier fashion by politicians (without any scientific basis).

As any parent who caught the flu (or worse) from their kids can attest, I am more than betting that yes, they are infectious. It’s not a matter of degree from the moment you share a roof with them, and we’re not being careful enough here.

Economic Impact

The emphasis on keeping the schools going was predictable, given that the national economy tanked something like 17% over the course of the pandemic, and around 40% of restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues are shut (and considering applying for insolvency).

That and various hiccups in the various small industries that dot the northern part of the country mean that the government has staunchly pursued a strategy of attempting to minimize economic impact and personal damage, which is presently shifting to “roughly in that order”.

Since a lot of local news coverage is about British tourists still flying in to Algarve (directly to Faro, apparently) and hospitals are coping (ICU figures, in particular, have been holding moderately steady), I guess the government’s strategy is working.

Until it isn’t, since the developing rise in new cases came earlier than expected and follows what I’m seeing in France and Spain (which, incidentally, is terrifying, but not the point right now).

Technology

Much hullabaloo has been made about there being a national exposure notification app called StayAway COVID, a name that feels somewhat contrived (and redolent of wishful thinking). Zipping through the recording of the press conference as I type this, my impressions are roughly evenly split between ego stroking (we have one too, first-worlders!) and a misplaced faith in technology.

I’ve been tracking the technology and privacy aspects of it, even as the usual misguided mini-dramas about proprietary code and tinfoil hat paranoia unfold over on GitHub.

It seems to have clocked in several hundreds of thousands of downloads already (the press mentions half a million, but is unclear as to breakdowns) , but is hardly likely to be a massive help–it is something that needed to be done, but hardly useful for seniors (who are still the most impacted) and, of course, not likely to help prevent spread at all3.

Bread and Circuses

In a move that makes Portugal look like a banana republic (even more than usual), the local Communist Party was green-lit to hold their annual fund-raising event this very weekend, even as new cases peaked.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because you might have seen it mentioned in the New York Times.

It’s always great to see your country in the news, right? Well, not so fast there.

The “Festa do Avante” is a three-day fair with open air concerts, plays, outdoor sports and all manner of cultural side shows, and it is quite popular even among non-Party members (I never went, but I recall a fair amount of friends spending the weekend there during college).

It was expected to have something like 33.000 visitors a day, which with tickets priced around the €30 mark, can clock in at nearly a million Euro of cash-flow a day. Yep, that’s how much of a deal it is to the organization, if you’ll pardon the (capitalist) pun.

With that much as stake, much political drama unfolded during the days leading up to last Friday, with center-right party heads going on record to denounce the event as borderline irresponsible (to say the least) and calling for legal and political intervention (which was actually attempted).

DGS (after some to-ing and fro-ing) finally capped the venue at exactly 16.563 simultaneous visitors, but the President of the Republic had to make some stern comments on air regarding both the event and political blundering, since DGS refused to make public their recommendations for a couple of days.

As an aside, the on-site TV interviews are hilarious (as was the Party leader’s opening speech, which included a statement to the effect of “we shan’t be silenced by wearing masks”), and range from die-hard Party members (many of them senior) who wouldn’t stay away (ha!) if the site were an active volcano, to ordinary families visibly enjoying a sunny outing.

But, thankfully, there seems to be rather smaller attendance than expected, and hopefully we won’t see a large uptick from it, although many people were quick to pin the little bump prior to May 15th on left-wing demonstrations on the 1st of May…

Idiots

Speaking about demonstrations, there were a couple of protests against mask wearing and restrictions, apparently fostered by right-wing activists.

The less said about them the better, other than there obviously being a lot of misguided and ignorant people out there, even in a mild-mannered country such as Portugal.

I blame this (at least partially) on excessive focus on what is going on in the US, which pervades online and TV media to an almost unbearable extent (some causes like Black Lives Matter are worth by themselves, but most of what is going on in the US, quite frankly, is just too depressing for Humanity as a whole).

Looking Forward

I’m not optimistic–at all.

In particular, I expect schools (maybe not all, but definitely some) to have to be shuttered by end of October, which will be possibly far too late to stop us going back to another bout of exponential growth.

I also expect the current trend of new infections targeting younger, irresponsible people (who, together with seniors in nursing homes, make up the bulk of new cases) to have a wider expression.

And, finally, I am positive we haven’t seen the end of all the discussions about long-term side effects (especially myocarditis), even in otherwise mild/asymptomatic cases.

Taking that into account, we’re trying to stay safe and hunker down as much as possible, which is extremely frustrating given that there are usually a lot of personal errands to run this time of the year as September and October unfold.

Work-wise and motivation-wise, I sort of managed to recover over the past three weeks, but the entire situation has managed to drive home the fact that life is too short, and I’m not happy with the perspective of spending my days doing Teams calls, Excel spreadsheets and Word documents instead of (for instance) doing actual product or engineering work4.

This is not new and is extremely difficult to juggle with everything else that is going on, but definitely needs being dealt with. I’m just not sure when.

Conclusion

Things are going to get worse over the next few months. Just how much is still hard to fathom, but that’s a given.

In the end it’s all about risk management, but since I do that as part of my work, I can confidently say there’s not much “management” going on right now, and I woukd much rather have less risk awareness in my personal life.

But, all in all, we’re lucky in that we can (largely) work from home and most logistics (food, deliveries, confinement restrictions) are now working OK or have returned to a semblance of normalcy.

And I’m very glad I’m not in the US right now.


  1. I’ve also tried to get at the JSON data from the ArcGIS dashboard they publish, but it too has changed enough to break my scraper, and I know for a fact that data is managed manually as well. ↩︎

  2. I’m being liberal about the equivalence to K12 here, and using the reference just because it’s easier for my US audience. ↩︎

  3. A discussion on its effectiveness would take much longer than I have available to write this, so I’ll skip it–suffice it to say I’m skeptical. ↩︎

  4. I don’t mind the consulting/management angle, but I do mind not owning the outcomes, or being stretched like taffy across too many projects without adequate focus time. Also, I haven’t learned anything new at work (only in my spare time), and that’s not right. ↩︎

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