Macau’s Zero Covid Policy

Life in a parallel universe

9th November 2022
C.L. Cheang

Macau’s zero Covid strategy has devastated the region’s economy and blighted the lives of its citizens, writes C.L. Cheang.

Macau is known as the ‘gambling capital of the world’ and casinos are a major source of revenue for the region. Yet for almost three years now, Macau has followed China’s zero Covid policy. Residential areas, places of work, education or leisure can be locked down with no notice. Even though Macua is now slowly reopening to tourists, as recently as October 30th the region locked down one of its casinos for the first time after just one employee tested positive for Covid.

Travel restrictions

I finished my studies in London earlier this year but decided to travel for a bit before heading back to Macau. The region’s zero Covid policy made my return difficult.

For more than two years, Macau was completely closed off to both foreign visitors and the vast majority of Chinese tourists. It is only very recently that this has slowly begun to change. This month, for the first time since Covid-19 emerged, mainland Chinese residents can apply for tourist visas in the same way they did before pandemic restrictions were imposed. For more than two and a half-years, Chinese visitors had to apply for a visa in-person, a process which severely restricted numbers.

It was only in September that Macau lifted a ban on international visitors from 41 countries, including Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US. But although foreign travellers can now come to Macau, they need to comply with a host of restrictions.

Everyone entering Macau by an international flight must complete a PCR test for Covid at the airport. Passengers with negative results are then transferred to assigned hotels for a seven-day quarantine period. After this, they must then undertake an additional three days of ‘self-health management’. This entire procedure includes 12 PCR tests and costs at least £850, depending on where you stay.

The testing and immigration process is not well managed. I was quite fortunate: I waited for only five hours at the airport; I have friends who waited for 10 hours. Other aspects of the entry process are even worse than when I came back in 2020. When I last visited, the administration had arranged for citizens returning from overseas to complete quarantine at the 5-starred Sheraton Grand at Londoner Macao (a major gaming complex) for free, but this time I had to pay to stay in a local hotel, in a room with a mouldy smell.

Freedom by code

When I finished my mandatory quarantine and ventured out, I found Macua’s citizens to be ‘prim and proper’. Macau has never imposed any mandatory mask laws, yet wearing a mask everywhere from public transport to children’s playgrounds is now a social norm. Since May 2020 when the administration launched the Macau Health Code, everyone within the territory has to self-declare their health status every day to obtain a health code in a traffic light system. People with yellow or red QR codes face restrictions on what they can do and where they can go.

In late 2021, the authorities introduced a venue QR code on top of the existing health code. A Saturday afternoon spent having coffee and buying a few groceries in the same shopping complex could mean scanning and showing your health code 10 times. However, these QR codes are often simply ‘scanned’ by a security guard’s eyes as they stand at the entrance of a venue. At the same time, the symptoms of Omicron might be mild or non-existent, meaning citizens might not even be aware they are infected. This means that despite strict rules and regulations, people formally comply with the processes in place rather than genuinely acting in the spirit of the zero Covid policy.

Another wave strikes

Yet with rising infections in Mainland China, especially in the bordering Guangdong Province (Canton), Macau is not shifting from its zero Covid approach. In the 10 days after I was released from measures impacting international visitors, it was announced that a 66-year-old woman who lives in Fai Chi Kei in Macau had tested positive for Covid on 26th October in Zhuhai, a city in China which borders Macau. It was the first case to have been identified outside of quarantine facilities since the June wave. According to its latest policy, the Macau Health Bureau listed the building where the patient lived as a ‘red zone’. This meant that residents were prohibited from leaving their flats for a week for any reason other than to take Covid tests. The administration also launched a neighbourhood-wide PCR testing regime, requiring all citizens to do three tests in three days.

Then, on 30th October, for the very first time, the authorities locked down one of the casino complexes, MGM Cotai, after an employee tested positive. This prompted a further round of city-wide rapid antigen testing. And during the daily press conference on 31st October, the authorities announced that, following a person who works in Macau but lives in Zhuhai testing positive, everyone would have to take PCR tests between 1st and 2nd November. This meant that everyone in Macau, regardless of status, had to take a PCR test for two consecutive days to maintain a green health code.

Those who did not get tested within this period had their health code set to yellow. They then have to pay for their own test (approximately £5) and if they do not they will have violated Law 2/2004, the Law on the Prevention, Control and Treatment of Infectious Diseases. People who had recently recovered from Covid, or who had an international travel history, like me, had to get tested at specific centres.

By then, there were 10 confirmed cases of Covid in Macau but not one person who had tested positive was showing any symptoms of infection. And although 7 of them became infected through close contact, and had no record of leaving the city, the authorities maintained that there was no domestic transmission. Yet this did not stop tens of thousands of citizens queuing overnight for Covid tests amid a typhoon. And despite the fact that no positive cases were found in the city-wide mass testing, the authorities insisted that a second round of PCR tests took place between 4th and 5th November.

The impact of this hysteria cannot be overstated. The tourism and hotel industries have been waiting for almost three years for group tours from mainland China to come back to Macau. Announcing mass tests just one day before the return of mainland group tours was definitely troubling.

Changing minds?

I was at another casino complex, Galaxy, when the Health Bureau announced the latest cases and the city-wide tests. Based on my previous experience, I expected news of another confirmed case to mean everyone rushing home or queueing up at supermarkets. But this time people simply did not do this. Life carried on as normal except for people spending a few seconds with a swab in their nose or throat. People in Macau seemed to be tired of the zero Covid policy. This is hardly surprising when former partners like Hong Kong and Taiwan decided to coexist with Covid after a Covid wave struck earlier this year.

Scrolling through Macau Daily’s Facebook page, which is commonly referred to as the government’s mouthpiece, one could easily spot anti-policy comments. Some demanded opening the border to the outside world without quarantine but others questioned why the government allows mainland visitors to enter the region with a seven-day negative Covid history despite rocketing numbers of confirmed cases in China. Still others argued that the zero Covid policy serves the interests of business. Meanwhile, back in reality, most people in Macau are either underemployed because of a de facto lockdown from the outside world other than mainland China, or are worrying that they will become underemployed tomorrow.

Last week, following all negative results in the second round of tests, the authorities announced the termination of the State of Immediate Prevention and the continuation of the reception of mainland group visitors. It also announced that the 69th Macau Grand Prix will continue to be held between 17th and 20th November.

It seems that the Chinese special administrative region is back to ‘normal’ again. But how long will this last for? And what does normal mean now? When will the world’s largest gaming hub next gain as much tax revenue tax as it did in 2019? Will Macau ever return to being one of the richest places on this planet as it was for more than a decade before the pandemic?

Stepping into 2023, Macau and its 700,000 citizens continue to live in 2020.

C.L. Cheang recently graduated from a Master’s degree at King’s College London. She is Macanese by blood.

Photos: Newstodayhoho and Pauloleong2002 both published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.