Rear Admiral becomes household name in Portugal as head of Covid vaccine drive

Rear Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo has presided over the campaign which is close to meeting its target
Rear Admiral becomes household name in Portugal as head of Covid vaccine drive

Rear Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo shares a joke with a military nurse during a visit to a vaccination centre in Lisbon. Picture: Armando Franca/AP

As Portugal closes in on its goal of fully vaccinating 85% of the population against Covid-19 in nine months, a senior military officer is getting a lot of credit for how it was accomplished.

Rear Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo has presided over the campaign which is close to meeting its target.

With his team from the three branches of the armed forces, the naval officer took charge of the vaccine rollout in February, perhaps the moment of greatest tension in Portugal over the pandemic.

Now, the county could be just days away from reaching the milestone.

As of Wednesday, 84% of the total population was fully vaccinated, the highest globally, according to Our World In Data.

((PA Graphics)

Along with the rising number of shots, the Covid-19 infection rate and hospital admissions from the virus have dropped to their lowest levels in nearly 18 months.

Portugal could end many of its remaining pandemic restrictions in October,  a coveted development for many countries still in the grip of the highly infectious Delta variant and lagging in their own vaccination rollouts.

Previously unheralded outside the military, Rear Admiral Gouveia e Melo is now a household name in Portugal, having made a point of going on television regularly to answer public concerns about the vaccination programme.

He iss often greeted in the street by people wanting to thank him.

“People are very nice,” he says.

But the 60-year-old officer also is quick to insist he is just “the tip of the iceberg” in the operation and that many others share the credit.

Military involvement in rolling out the Covid-19 vaccine is not uncommon elsewhere, but Portugal has given it the leading role.

It turned out to be an inspired choice.

Although Rear Admiral Gouveia e Melo’s team works hand-in-hand with health authorities, police and town councils, the military’s expertise has proven invaluable.

“People in the military are used to working under stress in uncertain environments,” he said at his office in a Nato building near Lisbon that commands a view of the Atlantic.

“They’re organised, have a good logistics set-up … and are usually very focused on the mission.”

He was a submarine commander, and at one point was in charge of two of the vessels at the same time,- returning to base with one, eating a meal on shore and then taking another out to sea.

Rear Admiral Gouveia e Melo also captained a frigate, led Euromarfor, the European Union’s Maritime Force, and has logged the most hours at sea of any serving Portuguese naval officer.

He is unapologetic about couching the vaccine rollout as a battle and has worn combat fatigues ever since taking over the effort.

He said he wanted to send a message that it was a call to arms.

“This uniform … was symbolic for people to comprehend the need to roll up our sleeves and fight this virus,” he said.

Rear Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo (Armando Franca/AP)

These days, the Rear Admiral is often greeted with spontaneous applause from the public when he visits vaccine centres and poses for selfies.

He has been the subject of TikTok videos and poems.

Framed on the wall behind his desk is a drawing given to him by a child who wrote Obrigado (thank you) in capital letters.

Rear Admiral Gouveia e Melo will soon be able to say “mission accomplished” for his immediate goal.

But with significant vaccination hesitancy in some wealthier countries and many poorer countries without sufficient doses, he is under no illusion that virus variants could come back to torment Portugal.

“We’ve won a battle,” he says.

“I don’t know if we’ve won the war against the virus.

“This is a world war.”

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