OPINION – Who can advise Macau on post-pandemic development?

Countries across the world are faced with a problem that has no easy solution: how to balance the demands of regenerating their post-pandemic economies with those of protecting the health and welfare of their people.

Opinion | Keith Morrison – Author and educationist

Lockdown, restrictions and controls might work in the short or medium term, but countries run out of money and resources for supporting their people. Simply printing more money is hardly a good idea. Despite calls from the Secretary General of the United Nations for international cooperation in addressing post‑recession, post‑pandemic life, the relative absence of cooperation, together with the presence of international competition and geopolitical bad‑mouthing, do little to solve tensions between economic recovery and health protection. What to do?

On the one hand, Macau’s residents (but not its fired non-resident workers trapped in Macau) have been well supported by Macau’s government, which has been effective in addressing health threats, and has buoyed up the local economy and taken steps to keep high the spirits of its locals, e.g. by handouts and internal tourism projects respectively. On the other hand, go along the streets of Macau and Taipa and you see lines of closed businesses. It brings a lump to the throat; people disappear from shops that will never reopen, and they go home to suffer in relative silence. Whilst the Macau government has helped to support local consumerism, this is only one side of the multi-pronged approach needed to address post-pandemic recovery.

I pity any government having to take decisions on when and how to open up the economy. It is a no‑win situation; whatever it does will be criticised by some. At what point does the government open up borders, and to whom? When does it stop giving handouts, leaving people to fend for themselves? When and where does it slacken lockdown restrictions to jump-start the economy, but thereby risk spreading infection? To whom and to what can we turn for advice?

Maybe we can look to simulations and predictions for advice. However, these are based on examples, situations and algorithms which differ from those of the present. There are no clear, sufficiently similar examples from which we can draw the boundaries of restrictions or balance the risks between control for health purposes and relaxing controls to avoid economic meltdown. Controls both protect and restrict; they limit economic recovery, but relaxing them risks a descent into entropy, infection and despair.

How about turning to economists? Questionable, as many of their models are selective, their forecasting is little more than statements of the blindingly obvious written in a high falutin restricted code, and their analyses and advice are often little more than thinly disguised ideology, i.e. selective, one-sided and limited, despite their protestations of neutrality.

How about business leaders and employers? Maybe not, as they seem incapable of setting aside neo-liberal selfishness, acquisitive self-interest and the press to commodify and materialize everything, even public goods, access to which should be a human right, e.g. health, education, food and accommodation.

How about NGOs? Not much use there, as Macau’s NGOs are largely ignored unless they focus on business.

How about turning to politicians? I’m dubious; politicians have their own short-term agendas which do not always align themselves to the public good, despite their claims to the contrary.

We can look to history, but that offers little solace or help in a changed world. We can look at countries where the virus is still rampant, and contrast them with those where it has been contained, and learn how their economic recovery is being planned and conducted. But even these are not the same for small states and territories whose economies are not simply scaled-down versions of larger-scale economies. Macau has its own unique economic dynamics; it is not some kind of homunculus of giant economies.

So, where to look in planning for post-pandemic Macau? How to balance economic recovery with public health and wellbeing? My concern is that Macau’s populace and public voices on difficult decisions here are not being canvassed or involved sufficiently. Macau’s public should have a stronger voice in deciding when, where and how to balance the risks between economic decline and public health, where to draw the line. Currently we rely on big brother(s) to provide answers; dangerous.