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Macau ‘at a standstill’ amid zero-COVID restrictions, mandatory mass testing program

Authorities in the former Portuguese enclave of Macau have imposed a series of stringent restrictions and multiple rounds of citywide mass testing for COVID-19 amid a fresh outbreak in the city, prompting criticism of attempts to mimic mainland China’s zero-COVID policy in the tourism-dependent city.

Mass testing started at the end of last month, with hundreds of people standing in long queues in the rain and summer heat, as officials told businesses to shut down or minimize operations and the general public to stay home unless absolutely necessary.

Secretary for social affairs and culture Elsie Ao said Macau’s current fight against COVID-19 was “even more difficult” than the Shanghai lockdown earlier this year, local media reported.

Residents’ movements are being restricted by a COVID-19 health code app similar to that used in mainland China, with 16 buildings classified as “red zones” and more than 70 “amber zones”.

Residents of red zones are barred from leaving their homes, while those in amber zones may only leave to pick up essential supplies at designated locations.

The city reported 852 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 on July 3.

A resident who requested anonymity said he had stood in line for two hours for his most recent PCR test, which are mandatory, along with interspersed rapid antigen tests done from home.

“I went to a school on Monday afternoon for a PCR test,” the man said. “There were a lot of people queuing up outside, although the school did have air conditioning.”

“I think the government’s arrangements have led to greater concentrations of people, which has very likely actually increased the number of people infected with the virus,” he said.

“It happened to be raining heavily while I was standing in line just now, and a lot of people there were criticizing the government.”

Tired of stocking up

He said many people are tired of constantly rushing to the supermarket to try to lay in supplies of food and other essentials amid sudden shortages.

“Everyone has been rushing to buy supplies at the supermarkets every day, mostly rice or cases of instant noodles,” he said. “When I went to a supermarket just now, the instant noodles were all gone.”

“People are posting fake news in chats saying that there isn’t enough stock in supermarkets, and telling everyone to rush and buy stuff, even though the government has said repeatedly that there is plenty of supply,” he said.

“I think people are frightening themselves.”

He said many people are confused by the shifting rules on people’s movements.

“The government’s policies seem to change every day,” he said. “I’m in a red zone, and people there are in lockdown and can’t go out.”

“They depend on friends and relatives to get supplies, but mine got confused by the information and missed the window set by the government, so my supplies weren’t delivered,” he said. “A lot of people are criticizing the authorities for messing with people.”

Waste of money

Macau-based journalist Roy Choi said it wasn’t entirely clear how effective the Macau authorities’ approach would be in detecting and eliminating COVID-19, however.

“[Mass testing] may randomly detect and confirm more cases, but it also means that citizens have to make appointments, stand in line and take the risk of being around other people, which will increase the number of cluster infections,” Choi told RFA. “It’s not just a major upheaval for people; it’s a waste of public funds and manpower.”

“Macau is pretty much at a standstill, and it seems that this has only happened in Macau and some cities in mainland China,” he said. “Is it actually necessary?”

“What science is it based on? It even makes people wonder if the authorities are passing on the benefit to certain companies that conduct nucleic acid testing,” Choi said.

He said the Macau government, in charge of an economy that is export-based, should move towards living with COVID-19 as soon as possible.

“The most embarrassing thing at the moment is that Macau has to follow mainland China’s lead,” Choi said. “This policy is political,” he said.

The government is handing out subsidies to eligible employees of 15,000 patacas (around U.S.$1,800), while taxi drivers, tour guides and those who make their living from fishing will each receive 10,000 patacas each.

Tax rebates will also be offered on tourism and housing taxes, fees for hotels and catering firms, and a road tax rebate for commercial vehicles, local media reported.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.