The Plague by Albert Camus - poster artist Seonaid MacKay (UK)

Opinion – Macau, closed city

So, just like that, our 40-day clean slate was blown to smithereens as seven new imported Covid-19 cases were reported this week.

The new cases include two residents who had been studying in the UK, as well as five non-residents from South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Spain.

This started a chain reaction of sudden Macau government policies as more and more countries were added to the high-risk country list demanding mandatory quarantine.

Residents abroad scrambled to buy and change flights home as soon as possible when it was announced that Europe’s Schengen Area member states, as well as the US, Canada, Australia and other countries, would be added to the quarantine list on March 17 (Tuesday).

Suddenly, on March 18 (Wednesday), only residents and non-resident worker permit-holders could enter the city, and just one day later only Greater China residents and non-resident workers were allowed.

All this in just four days.

The pace of events is enough to make our heads spin for those of us who are just staying in the city and watching this unfold, so I can’t imagine someone abroad trying to navigate the ever-changing international entry restrictions as the world reacts to this modern plague.

Through a series of varying explanations — some logical, others simply odd — local authorities tried to defend themselves from accusations of discrimination against non-resident workers from outside Macau, Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

Personally, I can understand some of the justifications based on a lack of physical capacity to accommodate so many people in medical isolation. After all, four rather large resorts already had to be reserved as quarantine centers, and if we needed to isolate everyone who set foot outside Greater China, it might take more than half of the city’s hotels.

I can also understand specific policies to address travellers coming from overseas, considering that the main challenge now is to intercept imported cases.

What is more perplexing is hearing such an unusually straightforward description from the Health Bureau Director of some kind of local ‘caste system’ according to residents’ status.

So, are local residents worth the MOP10,000 cash handout? Are non-permanent residents worth MOP6,000? And are blue card holders worth exactly what they currently receive in the broader wealth partaking scheme: a fat zero?

Of course, every country looks after its own nationals first, but there is always a way to do so that can minimize collateral injustices.

Local authorities have enacted truly helpful and generous policies so far, permitting non-residents to be included in the health mask purchasing rounds and the MOP3,000 consumer scheme rounds. This should be lauded.

The health services are currently under great stress to keep the pandemic at bay, so as not to waste the great efforts already made to eliminate local cases.

So far, most decisions enacted have appeared to be mainly justified by health concerns — but this, I think, is one of the first blatantly political decisions, and it seems to have been imposed on them by suddenly including every region in Greater China.

After all, Hong Kong saw 49 new confirmed cases in just one day, but closing its doors to the neighboring SAR would, of course, be politically unthinkable.

Regardless, several non-Chinese resident permit-holders were incited by their employers to take long vacations during the low periods caused by the epidemic, and many returned to their home countries.

There are always ways to mitigate unwanted consequences in the lives of people affected, and a special channel could be provided to non-resident workers to at least resolve the most common issues that may arise from this sudden ban, such as difficulty finding employment and paying rent.

In fact, this would also probably be helpful to local employers already struggling with low available manpower.

We all know that in Macau some residents are more equal than others, but let’s at least not make it so obvious.

In “The Plague,” Albert Camus focuses on the impact of the plague in the Algerian city of Oran — then a French colony — and how residents face it: sometimes with generosity, sometimes with selfishness.

One can hardly compare the current pandemic to the experiences of a disastrous illness that swept 475 million people from the face of the earth, but there are two quotes that do seem to clearly describe the two ways in which humanity tends to face crises:

“In fact, it comes to this: nobody is capable of really thinking about anyone, even in the worst calamity. For really to think about someone means thinking about that person every minute of the day, without letting one’s thoughts be diverted by anything — by meals, by a fly that settles on one’s cheek, by household duties, or by a sudden itch somewhere. But there are always flies and itches. That’s why life is difficult to live.”

“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”

I just hope this crisis continues to bring out the best in us, and not the worst.

MNA Editor-in-Chief