“The first thing is to make this thing a war,” Admiral Gouveia e Melo said in an interview, recalling how he approached the job. “I use not only the language of war, but military language.”
While politicians around the world have invoked a similar martial rhetoric, he said it was critical to his success that he was widely seen as detached from politics.
He quickly assembled a team of some three dozen people, led by elite military personnel — including mathematicians, doctors, analysts and strategic experts from Portugal’s Army, Air Force and Navy.
Asked what other countries can do to bolster their own vaccination efforts, he did not hesitate to offer his best advice.
“They need to find people who are not politicians,” he said.
Before the pandemic, Portugal was fortunate to have a robust national vaccination program. It grew out of the country’s devastating experience battling polio, which was still affecting the country after Admiral Gouveia e Melo was born in 1960. He recalls when the daughter of a family friend fell ill from the disease and the suffering that followed.
Manuela Ivone da Cunha, a Portuguese anthropologist who has studied anti-vaccination movements, said that “vaccine doubters and anti-vaxxers are in the minority in Portugal, and they are also less vocal” than they are in many other countries.
Leonor Beleza, a former Portuguese health minister who is now the president of the Champalimaud medical foundation, said Portugal’s rollout clearly benefited from the discipline stemming from the nomination of a military officer.