efe-epaPaula Fernández Lisbon

The pandemic has caused more than just death and disease - it has triggered a new wave of poverty in Portugal, already one of western Europe’s most impoverished nations: beauticians, physiotherapists, taxi drivers and other workers with previously stable jobs suddenly lost their income, and must now rely on charity to survive.

In a country where a fifth of the population was already at risk of poverty and social exclusion, Covid-19 has suddenly cut off incomes for thousands of people.

In July, there were 407,000 people registered for unemployment, although economists, unions and politicians say the real figure is much higher.

Joining the 900,000 workers were laid off, furloughed or had their wages cut because of the pandemic in the lines outside unemployment centers, food banks and shelters across the country are those who have only recently fallen on financial hardship and are not used to relying on outside help.

OVERFLOWING FOOD BANKS

“It was very distressing," the president of the Portuguese Food Bank Federation, Isabel Jonet, tells Efe. Jonet leads a network that currently helps 440,000 people throughout the country, 15 percent more than before the pandemic.

In the two busiest months alone, more than 60,000 people contacted for help.

"It was a very brutal increase. From one day to the next, we began to receive more and more requests. There were days when we received 2,000," Jonet recalls.

The families asking for help are different to those who visited food banks before coronavirus: now she sees hairdressers, personal trainers, physiotherapists, dentists, beauticians, domestic workers, mobile salesman and a whole range of other kinds of jobs that have seen their sources of income evaporate.

That is the case for Ana Paula, 36, who used to work at a shop in downtown Lisbon and is still on “lay-off”. Her husband is unemployed and tested positive for Covid-19, just like her infant child: the three have had to isolate at home, further complicating their situation.

“It is just us and the baby, we don’t have any relatives here. It’s quite a difficult situation,” she tells Efe whilst queuing up outside the Parish Community Center of Famões, on the outskirts of Lisbon, where she receives two food parcels a month.

She still doesn’t know when she will be able to return to work. “I think this situation will continue until the end of the year. My company has started up again but in a completely different way, with fewer workers. I am still stuck at home, waiting.”

In early March, before the pandemic took hold, Famões provided parcels for 48 families. Now, nearly 140 families come to the center.

For some of the families who have only fallen on hard times since coronavirus, it is “very difficult to help because it is a shameful poverty, they are not used to it and do not want to publicly admit that they are having difficulties," the executive director of the center, Paulo Pinheiro, tells Efe, who adds that he does not expect the demand for aid to decrease any time soon.

RISING HOMELESSNESS

For some, Covid-19 has even rendered them homeless.

Although there is no official data yet, institutions and shelters have observed an increase in so-called "homeless with a roof": people sleeping in shelters and pensions for those who have nowhere to live.

"This factor has seen high growth," says the general director of the Center for Support to the Homeless (CASA), who reports that in many cases they come from sectors that have especially hit hard by the pandemic, such as hospitality, transport, construction and the arts.

While some families have not quite fallen this far, many need support to be able to keep their homes: requests for assistance from Cáritas Portuguesa has risen by 49% during the pandemic. Most of those were related to rent or mortgage payments, according to data CASA provided to Efe.

A COUNTRY THAT WAS ALREADY POOR

The pandemic has only aggravated the situation in a country where 21.6 percent of the population were at risk of poverty and around 3,000 people sleeping on the streets.

"Measures such as the solidarity supplement for the elderly or the rise in lower pensions have been implemented, but we still have people with pensions of less than 180 euros per month," the president of the Federation of Food Banks says.

Jonet believes that the government must implement new social support mechanisms for families who will need help for "a long time" due to the pandemic, but warns that they cannot "neglect pre-existing poverty issues."

"This crisis was very unexpected and no one was prepared for economic and social brutality. We all thought that Covid-19 was just a health problem, but it is more than that," he says. EFE-EPA

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