People queue for mass Covid-19 testing near the Ruins of Saint Paul’s, in Macau, on June 20. In the past month, the city has gone to great lengths to manage double-digit daily infections. Photo: Reuters
Alice Wu
Alice Wu

Macau’s costly two-week Covid-19 lockdown holds a lesson for Hong Kong

  • It has taken Macau numerous rounds of mass testing and weeks of lockdown to bring the latest outbreak under control
  • In Hong Kong, we have to wonder if we can continue to afford stringent pandemic controls when even Beijing has indicated it is adjusting its measures
Macau is emerging from a two-week lockdown, with the reopening of some businesses over the weekend. This is the second time the world’s largest gambling hub has had to close its casinos due to Covid-19. While gaming isn’t an essential activity, for Macau, it’s an essential business. A business that can bring in gross revenue of 300 billion patacas (US$37 billion) in a good year for a city of some 600,000 residents is vital, to say the least.

It’s also important to remember that, before late June, Macau had managed to keep total cases below 100 for more than two years – an incredible feat.

Once upon a time, we were desperate to open our border with Macau. Last summer, Hong Kong had finally achieved 14 consecutive days of zero local infections and chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor geared up for talks with her Macau counterpart.

However, Macau suddenly moved the goalposts and said it would require Hong Kong to achieve 28 days of zero infections. From that point on, it has been clear that the two special administrative regions are on two distinct paths.

While Hong Kong continues to seek border reopening with the mainland, we have learned that we are in a special purgatory reserved for an international city in China, struggling between belonging to a zero-Covid country and staying connected to the rest of the pandemic-ravaged world.

Macau’s priority has always been to remain open to the mainland. Reopening casino doors, however, doesn’t mean visitors will come back. The stakes were high in Macau’s recent lockdown. The city’s economy had contracted by 54 per cent in 2020, and it had yet to recover fully before it was disrupted again this summer.


All Macau casinos close in latest Covid-19 outbreak

All Macau casinos close in latest Covid-19 outbreak

Analysts have been sounding the alarm for months, in fact. Back in April, the International Monetary Fund pointed out Macau’s vulnerability to resurgences of Covid-19.

For some of us watching from Hong Kong, it may be shocking to see the lengths Macau went to just to manage double-digit daily infections. At a time when we are still trying to strike a careful balance in our response to rising infection numbers, and officials and experts are striking notes of caution, it is important to learn from Macau’s experience and take some notes.
It has taken Macau 13 rounds of mass testing since late June, and two weeks of “static management” (during which wages were not paid and dogs couldn’t be walked), to bring the latest outbreak under control. Given that Macau’s population is just a fraction of ours, we can pretty much rule out a similar remedy of citywide testing and lockdown in Hong Kong.

How many rounds of testing and weeks of lockdown could this city of 7 million bear? At this point, if we are to maintain our status as an international financial centre, we need to manage not only the pandemic but also our containment measures: for example, make our quarantine requirements less stringent.


Hong Kong health chief says any hotel quarantine reduction will be based on Covid infection data

Hong Kong health chief says any hotel quarantine reduction will be based on Covid infection data
And as Covid-19 continues to evolve, our response needs to evolve too. At the World Economic Forum last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said Beijing would adjust its Covid-19 control measures, so they are more targeted and effective. He was quoted as saying that “outbound commerce and trade activities and cross-border travel for labour services will be advanced in an orderly fashion”.

The pandemic has taken a tremendous toll on China’s economic health and the world’s second-largest economy does need to recalibrate its pandemic measures and mitigate the damage.

And while there is no one-size-fits-all response to Covid-19 and its many variants, we are once again seeing the virus’ power to lay bare our deep-seated problems. For Macau, it’s over-reliance on one industry. Also, while Macau and Hong Kong have different public health systems, both were overburdened even before the current crisis.

Both cities top the world’s vaccination rates, so residents have done their part. It’s up to our governments to put us on the right path in a world that will not be Covid-19-free.

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