Macau Chief Executive Ho Iat-seng (centre) and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (right) attend the opening session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing on May 22, 2020. Photo: AFP
Alice Wu
Alice Wu

Living with Covid-19: is Macau working with Hong Kong to reopen borders?

  • Macau’s requirement that Hong Kong must see 28 consecutive days of no infection – up from 14 days – before it would consider resuming cross-border travel is excessive
  • Both SARs should be working together to ease restrictions so their economies could recover
Just days after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced that her administration had initiated talks to reopen its borders with Macau, following a 14-day streak of no local infections in Hong Kong, the first local case of the Delta variant was reported. Accordingly, any plans to resume travel have been pushed back.
The same happened with the proposed air-travel bubble with Singapore, which was put on hold at the last minute not once but twice. The bubble agreement required much effort and goodwill from both governments, yet the flights that were first expected to take off last November remain grounded.
We are not the only ones struggling with reopening. England, which had very encouraging infection numbers and vaccine uptake heading into its scheduled reopening on June 21, has had to delay lifting restrictions for a month due to a surge in Delta variant infections.
Closer to home, Dongguan is the latest city in Guangdong province to be hit by the Delta variant. Citywide mass testing was carried out there last week. The mainland has adopted one of the most stringent regimes for Covid-19 border restrictions and health controls, yet it hasn’t been infection-proof.


Guangzhou tightens Covid-19 controls as mass tests expose more cases in Chinese city

Guangzhou tightens Covid-19 controls as mass tests expose more cases in Chinese city
The idea that we can be sealed off completely from the virus if we isolate ourselves is fanciful at best. And that’s why Singapore is wise to recognise that Covid-19 may never go away and is preparing to live with it as an endemic.

Macau, a stone’s throw away, is sticking to its isolation playbook. There is no doubt it has done an incredible job – it has had only 53 Covid-19 infections and zero deaths, so has got many things right. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Macau – China’s other special administrative region – has impressed us with its preparedness. Indeed, it has come a long way since Typhoon Hato gave it a rude awakening in August 2017, by exposing how ill-prepared it was for a citywide emergency.
Macau took the lesson to heart. In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when Hong Kong was scrambling to secure surgical masks, the Macau government firmly and swiftly stepped in to ration mask buying. The government is still running its guaranteed mask supply programme, currently on its 31st round.
Like many others, Macau shut its borders early on, to curb the virus spread, even closing its casinos for two weeks in February last year. But, by September, its borders were open again to mainland arrivals, but travel to and from Hong Kong remains out of bounds.
A security guard monitors thermal scanners that detect temperatures of visitors at the closed Grand Lisboa casino and hotel, following the coronavirus outbreak in Macau on February 5 last year. Photo: Reuters
In April, Macau Chief Executive Ho Iat-seng said Hong Kong must have zero cases for 14 consecutive days before quarantine-free travel could resume. But, now, the goalposts have been moved without explanation, to 28 consecutive days.
Macau is understandably cautious about relaxing border controls, but the requirement of 28 consecutive days of no infection is excessive. Further, it runs against the “integration” necessary for the Greater Bay Area to become the ambitious new global economic powerhouse that the central government envisions.

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Hong Kong has made plenty of mistakes in its measures to fight the pandemic, but its experience has confirmed and strengthened its testing, and track and trace capabilities, making the city better prepared for reopening.

With only a fraction of Hong Kong’s population, Macau had been better at procuring surgical masks for residents. It is a reminder that the two SARs are so different that comparisons may not be helpful. An outbreak in Macau could have very different consequences than it would here in Hong Kong.

We’ll have to navigate the post-pandemic world carefully, but given that we share a common destiny in the Greater Bay Area, the earlier both Hong Kong and Macau can reopen their borders safely, the better prepared both will be for the future.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA