Medical workers struggle amid new COVID-19 crisis in Portugal

In Portugal, hospitals have been suffering from a massive overload due to the new surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the new mutations of the virus. The São Bernardo Hospital in the city Setúbal has been struck particularly hard, which has caused significant emotional stress on those who work there.

Workers at São Bernardo Hospital have had a hellish few weeks coping with the outbreak, as the hospital has reached overcapacity, reaching an occupancy rate of 512 percent in the infirmary and 950 percent in intensive care. It has reached a point where patients are even being treated on the floors, because there aren’t enough beds. This has caused immense stress on everyone who works there, from doctors and nurses to organisational staff. Many doctors and nurses feel depressed and lonely, working up to 80 hours per week to control the outbreak.

A queue of ambulances at the São Bernardo Hospital in Setúbal, courtesy of Filipa Serra

Filipa Serra, who works in management at the hospital, finds it difficult to cope with the emotional labour that is needed on top of the physical, and believes more attention should be paid to those suffering from this. “People are very exhausted, and very depressed I think.”

Filipa Serra on her interactions with colleagues

Serra is working to improve communication within the hospital, to help relieve some of the stress medical workers feel on top of treating people, but mentions that doctors and nurses often find it difficult to seek out help themselves. “Doctors never get sick, and they self-diagnose, but that’s different with mental health, if they don’t seek help themselves, you have to go to them and ask them how they are feeling.”

The emotional hardship experienced by medical workers

Maybe if they don’t feel it now, I’m sure they will feel it later. Like a trauma.”

Filipa Serra displaying her hectic work schedule

While Portugal was previously praised for its success story in handling the pandemic, it is now being hit hard by new mutations from the UK and South Africa that are spreading rapidly, especially in Europe. Portugal now has the highest death rate in Europe, and hospitals are in dire need of help. Miguel Guimarães, the head of the Portuguese General Medical Council, visited the São Bernardo Hospital in Setúbal, and has included it in the list of priority hospitals that need external help.

Serra mentions that much of the staff is now also getting the virus, with even critical cases. This has further overwhelmed the hospital, as doctors and nurses are also needing to be treated themselves. She stresses that this is also very difficult emotionally, and talks about a close friend and colleague who is battling the virus and in critical condition.

Filipa Serra about her colleague who is ill

“We have colleagues who are dying. It hurts a lot.”

Despite the emotional hardship that these medical workers are dealing with, there does seem to be a spirit at the hospital of wanting to help each other. Serra mentions that everyone does what they can to help, even if it’s something small like bringing coffee to those who don’t have time for breaks. “What I feel everybody needs to figure out, is what you can do different, even if it’s not the thing you usually do.”

Author: Emma de Ruiter

Emma is Dutch/Portuguese, 21 years old, and currently a Journalism student at the University of Groningen. She has previously obtained her Bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts & Sciences at Leiden University College in The Hague.

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