Health workers wearing protective equipment attend COVID-19 patients at the Intensive Care Unit of Santa Maria Hospital in Lisbon, Portugal, on Nov. 20, 2020. (Photo by Pedro Fiuza/Xinhua)

Solidarity among Portuguese put to the test by pandemic

From offering assistance to medical workers to distributing meals and donating computers to needy schoolkids, Portuguese citizens are volunteering in droves in the wake of the economic and social crisis brought on by the pandemic.

At Lisbon’s main Santa Maria hospital, six motor homes parked nearby have become the headquarters of some 450 volunteers mobilised throughout the country by Ricardo Paiagua’s Caravan Project.

“The state doesn’t have money to fund everything and it’s up to us to help each other,” said the 38-year-old marketing and advertising professional.

Shocked by images of ambulances queing outside hospitals at the start of the year, when the number of COVID cases exploded in the country, he used his network of contacts to gather dozens of motor homes in order to provide a quiet space or a snack and hot drink to exhausted health care workers during their shifts.

A nearby auditorium provided by the University of Lisbon allows the group to stock goods, including cereal bars, mattresses or computers, donated to thank hospital staff for their  dedication.

– ‘Help me for school’ –

With the number of cases easing throughout the country, Paiagua’s volunteer group has recently turned its attention to schoolkids now studying online and in need of computers.

“This will help me for school,” said 15-year-old Elisabete Evora, who stopped by on a recent day to recover a computer. “Until now, all I had was an old cell phone.”

On the outskirts of Lisbon, another army of volunteers led by Eva Medeiros are busy preparing in their kitchens some 500 meals that are distributed every Wednesday evening in a central square of the capital.

Medeiros, a native of Brazil who has lived in Portugal for about 10 years, created “Street Friends” in 2018 to assist the homeless.

However, she said, the pandemic has triggered a new wave of poverty in the country.

“If people are hungry, I’m going to feed them,” said the 35-year-old beautician as she poured pasta into a large pot. “Currently, we see a lot of families who have lost their jobs.”

– ‘I have to manage’

That is the case for Jose Antonio, 51, who did odd jobs before the pandemic hit and has been unemployed since last March.

“I come every week, even if it’s raining,” he told AFP on a recent Wednesday, after crossing the city on his bicycle to eat the pasta and chicken dish being served that day.

“There is no work and I have to manage,” he added.

Portugal’s socialist government for its part has expanded its food assistance program, doubling the amount of funds to help 120,000 people in need.

The Catholic charity Caritas has also set up a special project to help some 10,000 people pay for housing and other bills.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of people in need and, what’s more, many of those seeking help are the ones that used to come to us to make donations,” said Rita Valadas, the head of the NGO.

by Thomas CABRAL