In mid-March, Spain and Portugal both declared states of emergency, just a few days apart, to step up their fights against the coronavirus pandemic. But one month later, the two countries of Europe’s Iberian Peninsula seem to be facing very different situations.
The full extent of the pandemic in both countries, as is the case with most nations worldwide, has yet to be established. But there is a striking difference between Thursday’s total of 182,816 registered infections in Spain – the highest in Europe – and the coronavirus toll in Portugal, which, despite having around a fifth of Spain’s population, had 18,841 infections as of Friday, roughly a tenth of Spain’s number.
The contrast is much more stark when it comes to death tolls. Spain’s total confirmed coronavirus deaths reached 9,130 on Thursday. Portugal had registered just 629 by Friday – three percent of its neighbour’s fatalities. Socially and culturally at least, Portugal and Spain are often credited with having more in common than just a 1,200 kilometre (745-mile) border and currently having a centre-left government in power.
Attempting to grasp why the two neighbouring nations’ fortunes in the coronavirus battle have varied so greatly – at least from what limited data we have – is not straightforward, or 100 percent certain.
“The most important point to raise is that the first registered case in Portugal was a month later than the first case in Spain: March 2 versus January 31,” argues Guillermo Martínez de Tejada de Garaizabal, professor of microbiology and parasitology at the University of Navarra in northern Spain.
“In fact, Portugal was the last country in Europe to register its first case of COVID-19. That gave the Portuguese an enormous advantage over the Spanish. They could thoroughly prepare their containment strategy regarding the pandemic,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We also have to applaud the rapid, decisive action by the Portuguese government, which decreed a total lockdown when it only had a handful of cases,” he said.
Portugal had just over 100 confirmed cases when restrictions on movement were put into place.
“Spain, on the other hand, took that decision at almost the same point [in time] as Portugal, when it had more than 5,000 cases and 133 deaths. Without any doubt, that was key in Portugal’s obtaining such low levels of mortality.”
Manuel Carvalho, director of Publico, one of Portugal’s best-selling daily newspapers, agrees.
“The fight against coronavirus has had quite good results mainly because the government acted quickly,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Schools were closed around 12 days after the first case and the state of emergency declared 14 days after.”