Melissa Harris-Perry: Hey, Jay, can I get you to hit that applause button, my friend?
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, yes, you at home too, put your hands together for the nation of Portugal.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This small country of just about 10.5 million people is absolutely crushing this whole pandemic situation. Portuguese vaccination rates for those over 50, almost 100%. For the 25 to 49 crew, Portugal is clocking in at 95% vaccination rate. Even the notoriously challenging young people, ages 12 to 17, are at 88% vaccination in Portugal.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How'd they do it, and what is life like in a fully vaccinated nation? We're joined by Eric Sylvers, staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal. Eric, it's great to have you here.
Eric Sylvers: Hi, thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Remind us how COVID-19 played out in Portugal early on. How did it compare to the rest of Europe?
Eric Sylvers: You're absolutely right that they're crushing it now. What's interesting though is that they've had a COVID experience that's different than most of the rest of Western Europe, the big countries including Italy, France, the UK, in the sense that early on in that first COVID, the end of the winter last year into the summer and so on, they thought that they were just going to dodge the whole thing.
Then things started picking up in November last year, and then they just went sky high in January just beyond anything that's even adjusted for population, way higher in cases and deaths than anywhere in Europe and including the US. One thing that's just shocking, I checked this number so many times when I did this myself. At the height, it would have been the equivalent of 9,500 people dying a day in the US, and in the US, we never got higher than 3,500 average per day.
They're crushing it now, but they're coming off a really, really, really bad January, February last year. In fact, I spoke to a lot of people, obviously, for this story. One thing that's universally accepted by the Portuguese is the fact that the vaccines became widely available here in Europe and in Western Europe, also in the US, in January, February. When they were coming off that devastating experience, it really played a factor in convincing people that the vaccine was the way to go.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's precisely what I was going to ask, Eric, is if the very horror of that level of illness and death was the thing that moved the Portuguese past the vaccine hesitancy that we've seen, obviously, in the US, but also in many other places, particularly in Eastern Europe as opposed to Western Europe.
Eric Sylvers: I think absolutely. When I was there reporting for the story and I would ask people about January, invariably, people would get teary-eyed from the rickshaw drivers, these really rough and tumble middle-aged men who are doing these rickshaws, to virologists or whatever. It's the equivalent of here in Italy when you talk to people about March of last year when Italy was the tip of the COVID sphere in the Western world. You speak to people, especially--
I'm based in Milan, as you mentioned. People up here were very close to the city of Bergamo, which probably a lot of people in the US now recognize that name. If you just mention March Bergamo here to people, they get this visceral reaction. I saw that there when you talk about January of this year. Obviously, March of last year is fresh, but January of this year is even fresher. It's very front and center in everybody's mind.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What is life like there now? Given that the vaccination rates are so high, is it what would feel normal?
Eric Sylvers: In a certain sense, it is normal. I went to a big soccer game with a German team that was visiting for this game, and the stadium was packed. On the surface, you might think this is a soccer game from two years ago, but to get into the stadium you needed what's called the EU COVID certificate, which is similar to the CDC card though it's digital and it has a QR code for everybody. That's a testing that you're vaccinated, or you've recovered from the virus, or just in the last few days, you've had a negative test. You're not supposed to get in to the stadium without that.
You have to wear a mask in the stadium, everybody's wearing a mask. You need a mask on the subway to get to the stadium. That's just that little slice of life which, if anybody knows, soccer is important in Europe and it's really, really important in Portugal. I think that's very telling that they've gone back to normality in the sense that they've got people in the stands because for most of last soccer season, there was nobody watching.
This is a big cultural point for them not just Portugal, other countries as well here in Europe. The masking never became a cultural war issue like it is in the US. Despite this insanely high vaccination rate, all kids are wearing masks in school, 10 years and older, 10 and older, they're wearing masks. All people working in shops have to wear masks. In the bigger stores, people who are customers have to wear masks.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you were talking about the vaccine passport, you can go to a big event but you have to prove your safety relative to epidemiological public health perspective, it made me think about the immediate post 911 moment and flying again. I can remember thinking 20 years ago, surely there will come a time when we won't be taking our shoes off and taking all of our things out. 20 years later, that's just what we do. For most people, it's all they even remember flying as. I guess I'm wondering as pandemic becomes endemic, is masking for kids in schools, is demonstrating your vaccination status what we are likely to expect not only in Western Europe but in the US as the normal parts of life?
Eric Sylvers: I think absolutely in the near term, but I think if you speak to epidemiologists or virologists, nobody expects the COVID to go on forever at this rate where we are. Sooner or later it's going to peter out and it's going to become endemic like what we think we saw there in Portugal, what I saw there in Portugal. I think masking for the immediate future in countries where it's not such a touchpoint issue. I'm based in Italy and masking is taken pretty seriously here still.
Even the Spanish flu in 1918, that had a couple of seasons and then petered out. Sooner or later, a respiratory virus like this is going to run its course. All of these things that we do are to try it, help it run its course while having less people get seriously ill and die. I think it's going to go on for a while. I hope. As somebody who wears a mask because I think it's the right thing to do but I really don't like to do it, I really hope it doesn't end up like the shoes when you're going through security at the airport.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I hear you on that one. It is certainly more restrictive in our life in our capacity to engage with one another. At the same time, if it gets us to the next stage more quickly, I'm willing to wear those masks. Eric Sylvers is a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal. Eric, thank you for joining us.
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