OPINION – Autumn sun

Regular readers, if there are some, and the others will forgive me for the intromission of a small personal admission. In writing this piece, I’m somewhat at a loss. After so many months with mostly news of economic and social despair, I was at pains to write something brighter in this late October. For once, there might actually be some good news. Things happened that allow us to expect slightly less gloomy figures than what was the case in the previous months.

By José I. Duarte | Economist, Macau Business Senior Analyst

Even though the results were, on the first impression, below what we were led to expect, the month ‘produced’ the first credible steps in the right direction. One is itching to look at the detailed data that will start coming out as the calendar page turns to November 1st. And yet, magazine schedules are sacred, and I will not dare to ask the editor to delay the printing machines. When everybody is waiting for some refreshing news, we are still bound by general perceptions and anecdotal evidence.

There are grounds to expect better figures for October. There was a visible increase in the number of visitors from mainland China (the only allowed, anyway) during the early days of the golden week and, subsequently, mainly in the second half of the month. Movement in hotel lobbies has increased, gambling revenues went up, some shops and restaurants re-opened. But all is still a far cry from the vital thresholds that may keep this economy running ahead, its unemployed at a minimum, and most of the citizens contented – let alone to get us back to the standards we got used to.  

The Budget season is starting, and it will bring some hints about the government’s expectations and directions. Things seem to move very slowly, and the purpose of the actions (and inactions) is often difficult to gauge. Some situations are increasingly difficult to justify on sanitary grounds alone. Fairly or unfairly, they are boosting a perception that their invocation increasingly a convenient ‘cover-all.’

What is there about the Covid-test (or its reliability) that justifies that a mainland resident can come to Macau with a single (and simple) negative test while a resident returning to Macau can’t?  Why a negative result and quarantine are both needed? Most Macau residents have been holed here for more than a half-year, without a single local case. How can some be allowed to travel to the mainland while others don’t? What makes the latter a medical threat? How can Hong Kong and Singapore agree on so-called ‘travel bubbles’ while we seem unable to do the same with any of them or anyone else?

The list could go on, but that is not the purpose here. However, they suggest a mindset that puts extreme weight on total control’s appearance in the short-term, albeit it might well be producing more harm than good if one would take a longer view.   

There is a lack of any public discussion about alternative approaches to deal with the situation. That seems to reflect a will to avoid adjudicating between potential (but real) conflicts among medical, social, and economic aims. Nevertheless, the longer a certain vagueness of purpose on most fronts persists, the more clashes between them are likely. It does not help that some public interventions suggest, regardless of how unfair that may be, some sense of detachment about the pain being caused (or increasingly feared) by many people and businesses. The administration seems somewhat stuck between the pressure to keep a policy of handouts and palpable anxiety about this crisis’s impact on public finances. May October prove a turning point.