With Covid-19 cases and deaths at the lowest level in months – in the past two weeks there have been three days without deaths – Portugal has the pandemic under control across the country. The main exception is little Odemira, in Alentejo, where the new coronavirus has thrived amid the poor hygienic conditions immigrant workers are subjected to.
The situation in the city was so bad that in addition to being excluded from the deconfination plan, Odemira also received a sanitary fence, prohibiting entry and exit from its most problematic neighborhoods.
In the epidemiological bulletin of last week, the city recorded the cumulative incidence, during the last 14 days, of 562 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. The national average was 66.9 cases per 100,000 population.
According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, Portugal has 838,000 cases and nearly 17,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Portuguese authorities have said Odemira’s figures have already improved, but the most recent figures have yet to be released. Even so, the health barrier remains in effect for at least an additional week.
Dependent on intensive agriculture, like much of Alentejo (the poorest region of the country), Odemira is home to a large immigrant population to provide crop management. About 80% of infections were recorded among foreign agricultural workers.
Most of the immigrants are from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and African countries. Most do not speak Portuguese and many do not speak English either, making them even more vulnerable to networks of labor exploitation.
Crowded in overcrowded and poorly ventilated neighborhoods – many sleep in containers with bunk beds – foreigners have suffered from successive outbreaks of Covid-19. With the rest of the country with few cases, all attention has been focused on the outbreaks in the region.
Poor hygienic conditions, added to numerous reports of labor exploitation – police are investigating at least 11 human trafficking cases – are known to authorities, but little has been done so far. Without foreign labor, agriculture in Portugal is not viable.
Opened up by Covid-19, the precarious situation of immigrants has started to gain attention, and reports in the region are repeated daily in newspapers and television stations across the country.
Under pressure, the government ended up decreeing a controversial measure: the civil requisition of a condominium of ecological houses in the tourist region of Zambujeira do Mar, famous for its beaches and for a music festival.
ZMAR condominium houses should temporarily house migrants who are unable to ensure adequate social isolation in their homes.
Unhappy, the owners – who include famous businessmen and lawyers – began to push for other solutions.
Thursday at dawn (6), under a powerful police apparatus, the first group of about thirty immigrants was transferred to the tourist resort, which is in the process of insolvency and has the Portuguese State as the main creditor.
The situation in Odemira has become one of the main political problems in Portugal.
On Wednesday (5), the leader of the main opposition party (the PSD, center-right) launched the attack on national television.
“I think Portugal have every reason to be ashamed of such a situation [de Odemira], we don’t have slavery there like 200 years ago, but we almost have slavery, ”MP Rui Rio said in an interview with RTP.
This week, several politicians, including the president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, visited the region.
The Minister of Internal Administration, Eduardo Cabrita, said the government is attentive to the situation of immigrants, but stresses that the priority is to resolve the health emergency.
According to him, the right to life and health is for all citizens of Odemira and for “the 10,000 citizens born in other countries, from Germany to Nepal, all the same, all having the right to ‘to live”.
Thursday (6), the situation was discussed at length during a parliamentary session. The performance of the government of Prime Minister António Costa (Socialist Party) has suffered from attacks from almost all parties.
The deputies recalled that the executive had authorized, in October 2019, that agricultural workers could be installed in containers. The measure is valid for ten years, not extendable, but there are pressures to have it reversed.
“What happened in Odemira is the tip of the iceberg which is repeated throughout the agricultural country,” said MP Beatriz Gomes Dias (Bloco de Esquerda).
“Long before the pandemic, there were reports of overcrowded houses, we already knew that people were paying several hundred euros for unsanitary and dilapidated houses, where they huddled,” he added.
Various associations for the defense of human rights and support for immigrants have denounced the terrible working conditions of the workers, stressing that many are victims of discrimination by the rest of the local population.
“The lack of living conditions in which many of these immigrants find themselves, with a serious risk to their health and public health, requires a rapid response. And the answer cannot be stigma, ”says the NGO SOS Racismo.
Despite the low wages, Portugal is one of the European countries in which the regularization process is easier for foreigners, including those who enter without a suitable work visa. Over the past five years, the country has seen a significant increase in the foreign resident population.
In 2020, the country reached a record of more than 707 thousand immigrants living legally in the country: an increase of 19.9% compared to 2019, which had already been of growth.