OPINION – COVID-19: How about we call it a day?

By José Álvares*

Someone has to say it, loud and clear. Someone who is impartial and not restrained by other interests. Someone who cares for a place it has called home for almost a decade and who has every intention to continue to do so. In the end, it is just an opinion and that is something that this free society allows to that someone.

*José Álvares,Macau-based lawyer

I had been in Shanghai a month before their own two-month lockdown (staying in touch with many friends that relayed to me their hardship throughout that period) and saw Macau going in a similar direction with the recent outbreak. My trigger was when I was asked by the police to return to my home while reading my newspaper outdoors alone – rather politely I should add, with some photos taken in between, though I forgot to give an autograph to the said fans. On the 1st of July I left for Hong Kong, where I noticed that while officially the policy is “COVID zero”, in reality, many cases go undetected and the population lives as normal. I understood why the city has yet to reach an agreement with mainland China as it clearly does not have the same COVID zero controls of the latter. I should say, people in Hong Kong aren’t afraid of getting COVID at all, rather that they be sent to Penny Bay (the depressing quarantine facility that Macau has managed well to avoid) and that their places of work be shut down temporarily because of those infected, a process that is as disruptive as unwarranted (we will get to that later). 

Likewise, fearing such fate, I boarded a flight two days later towards Europe. My first surprise was on the layover, when the chef preparing an omelette wasn’t wearing a mask. I looked around and realised that no one other than myself and the Chinese were wearing masks – I kept it on as I was still wary of the situation.

I had been told at the check-in in Hong Kong that if I didn’t have the third vaccination, I wasn’t allowed to board, but when I arrived in Lisbon, there wasn’t even a temperature check or COVID exam (pity, I’ve grown accustomed to being swabbed on a daily basis) and the immigration officers couldn’t care less about using masks. Another shocker, I saw an airport full of life, immediately sparkling in my memory the image of the airport in Beijing when returning to Macau through the international area, akin to the aftermath of a zombie attack scene.

Taking a simple stroll out from my family’s place, you see a city bustling with life. During the pandemic, outdoor car parks gave way to restaurant terraces that the government allowed as a way to curb the risk of spreading COVID-19 at the time – smart, though COVID-19 infection and spread is so no longer an issue that I’ve been told the government wants to claim those terraces back. It thus took little for me to ease my concern with COVID-19 – the only thing I always feared wasn’t so much myself, but spreading it to others, namely those at risk -, so much so that I just wanted to catch it and get it over with (given the alleged prospect of not being able to get it again for about 6 months – that is is under dispute). In fact, a few days after I arrived, I went to an indoor concert with 45,000 people and not a single person even carried a mask – my brother just departed to Budapest for one festival with double that attendance.

Everywhere I go, I hear people speaking Portuguese with a Brazilian accent, French and English. I even heard some Cantonese, which prompted me to confirm that they were from Macau and how good it was to enjoy the Summer here without any restraints. Portugal has made an effort to be welcoming during this time which has paid off with many businesses saying they now have revenues equivalent to pre-pandemic levels. 

The only major COVID-19 restriction is a 5-day order to stay at home in case of a positive infection, but I’ve been told the government no longer controls it as they did before (and to those that even report it..). Portugal has now had over 5 million cases, which amounts to half of the population, with the number of deaths standing at about 25,000, accounting to 8.4% of all deaths as of May 2022. Every life is precious, but, and I will sound cold hearted, we need to strike a balance when there are other major interests at stake. I should note that I did hold the opposite opinion previously, but after seeing the waste of resources we use to isolate people instead of treating those severely ill, it became a no brainer.

When I tell of what is ongoing in Macau, people are fairly surprised, but I reply that everywhere else in the world there were similar measures in places (in some cases, there still are). They counter with why they remain in place now (given all we know), to which I simply do not have a response. I do explain to them that throughout the pandemic, and to their surprise, in Macau we never really had any lockdowns other than the first two weeks when the outbreak started – in fact, I add that China remained the factory of the world, sustaining production while others remained closed for months on end. In fact, I was kind enough allowed to circulate in mainland China for half of the time during the pandemic and enjoyed a fairly unrestricted access, much to my mental well-being.

As I said before, we had (still have) a victory that we could claim over this virus, as China adapted quite well to the evolution of the virus, which Europe and the Americas have now proved (with the current COVID-19 strains) to be nothing more than a seasonal flu (yes, people are still getting it and having potentially a rough 4 days, but they all deal with it without having to go to the hospital). It is now clear that the longer the restrictions are kept, the further harm it brings to the economy, people’s mental sanity and the country’s reputation. No one talks about COVID-19 anymore in Europe and in North America (other than that the US President got it and self-isolated). So much so that a journalist wanted to interview me about the subject but didn’t manage to convince the editorial team that it was appealing enough with everything else that is going on, including the conflict in Ukraine, that now gave way to the ravaging fires all over the place.

In Macau, for all the reasons that have been abundantly discussed in the media and fairly well by the government, we need to move in sync with the policy of mainland China when it comes to COVID-19, which, and I can’t stress enough, friendly advice (though it’s way above my pay grade), should change a lot faster (even if we are seeing improvements). The latest evidence of how fed up people are with these constraints was in Sanya, and I can only imagine the discomfort caused to people to be stuck there – I can personally vouch for how amazing it is to holiday there, just not stay confined in a room.

Back to Macau, one of the biggest complaints is the degrading wait at the airport upon arrival from overseas, which can go up to 10 hours, after an excruciating trip brought about by the fact that we can only fly in through Singapore (departing from Lisbon for example, that means at least another stop prior, with total travel time of about 30 hours). How hard would it be to have people immediately leave the aircraft upon arrival (heard of waits of 30 to 60 minutes), with a test performed at the end of the aircraft stairs and immediately sent to the lab. 

Moreover, why can’t people wait for the test results at their designated quarantine hotel – isn’t it better that if a person is potentially infected be confined to their own room rather than in enclosed space with all the other travellers, which are allowed (humanly, at least this part) to eat and drink evidently without their masks. Also, why is the COVID-19 threshold metrics in Macau so high to the point that I heard of an individual that tested in Hong Kong (and was found with indeed a confirmed case of a previous infection, but no longer infectious) was sent to the Coloane centre for infectious diseases upon arrival in Macau, only to be relocated back to the quarantine hotel days later.

Finally, I would humbly submit that in Hong Kong they would have equal or even more resources than us to research and define appropriate COVID-19 responses – if they deem 3 days of quarantine to be an adequate period for arrivals, I wonder how excessively demanding our current 7 days requirement is. I am no scientist, but I saw that there is a false positive rate of 0,05% – if we perform 3 tests in each of the 3 days of quarantine, as the current UN General Secretary (then the Prime Minister of Portugal) once said, it’s all about doing the maths. Evidently, the same logic goes for the building lockdowns in Macau.

In Portugal, one of the biggest issues back in the day was that the hotline service for those infected to reach out when self-isolating was not sufficiently helpful. That was one of the many botched measures in dealing with the COVID-19. Having said so, we have their whole playbook to learn from and respond better to the current strains. We humbly submit that we should start training people to work on the said hotline in the eventuality that we move to a self-isolation policy – we even have antiviral drugs now (wisely bought by the Macau government upon its release) and China even approved recently its own manufactured ones.

Well, I do have an obvious interest as I will be returning soon, but it is about the bigger picture – instead of further shedding our reserve with handouts, we should be looking for new ways to generate revenue. I should say that throughout this whole period, I never wanted to travel beyond China precisely because of the quarantine impositions and I was actually living happily ever after, even though I deeply missed the part of my family that lives overseas. Having said so, it got to a point that we were likewise constrained in Macau (with the recent outbreak) the same way we would be if we travelled overseas (as we have quarantine upon arrival) – so, I ask, which is it, are we living with COVID zero or we will never truly be able to ward it off?

Having said so, I am glad I did travel abroad. I was able to see a world that has moved on to the benefit of its citizens (including the prospects of a recovering economy). Moreover, at a time when we are facing many China sceptics, brought about by misconceptions and biases, we remain bunkered instead of going out there to tell the other side of the story. It is most unfortunate – chide me all you want, I am just being honest. And it’s not like my opinion is not shared by many – go ask around for their most honest thoughts, you would be surprised…