It’s 5am on Friday 24 June 2022 as I write this. I’ve just returned home from the Macau Cultural Centre, where I’ve taken my third COVID test in four days – two nucleic acid tests (NAT) with a swab jammed down my throat by a fully PPE-clad medical worker and one self-administered rapid antigen test (RAT) where I had to stick a swab up my own nose.
Two more RAT tests were thrust in my hand at this morning’s NAT, making four RATs in total I am currently holding courtesy of the Macau government, so I expect to be shoving swabs up my nose a minimum of four more times in the near future. In a press conference last night Alvis Lo Iek Long, Director of Macau’s Health Bureau, said a third round of city-wide nucleic acid testing was possible – depending on the “prevailing situation.”
My first two tests were negative and I’m as sure this morning’s test will be negative as I am that the sun will rise in about 45 minutes from now. [Later edit: it did.]
Since the “outbreak” of COVID in Macau on Sunday we’ve seen 110 cases (so far) in a population of 682,000 – that’s one in every 6,200 people, or 0.016%. But judging by the reaction in Macau you’d be forgiven for surmising that the apocalypse is upon us. The borders have been slammed shut; the government has pronounced the situation “very serious;” an army of health workers have been mobilized to conduct compulsory testing for every man, woman and child in Macau; around 20 locations in Macau have been locked down affecting around 5,000 people; Fortuna hotel has been surrounded and sealed with hundreds trapped inside; dire SMS messages have been sent by the government warning of the police carting people off for testing or compulsory quarantining if they don’t “voluntarily” comply; young children have been shoved into quarantine; on-premises dining and many entertainment venues have been shut down; and much, much more.
COVID is no longer the “deadly disease” it once was – if it ever really was
With all this civil action – including at one stage speakers in the street blaring warnings like something out of a dystopian movie – you would have to assume that we’re in the grips of some kind of killer, deadly disease. Something that’s pretty much a death sentence if you get it, right? Well, er, no. Not at all. The latest global tally of COVID deaths is 6.3 million in a total of 547 million cases since the start of the pandemic in January 2020, according to worldometers.info, which has been keeping close track of these numbers since day one. That’s a death rate of 1.1%.
But even that 1.1% number is misleading. That includes the earlier period of the pandemic, when very little was known about COVID, the far more deadly Delta variant predominated, and vaccines weren’t widely available. Using the past week as a snapshot – we see 8,277 deaths globally in 4,026,287 cases – a death rate of just 0.2%. Just 1 in 500 people.
Macau now has a vaccination rate around 90%, pretty much as high as it possibly can get, and getting it any higher won’t move the needle much anyway. So, you’d expect our death rate to be quite low. Say we do end up with hundreds of cases and 1 in 500 die and we do see a death or two in Macau. While that would be a tragedy for those affected, bear in mind that on average six people die every single day in Macau from cancer, heart disease, normal (non-COVID) influenza and a multitude of other causes. These causes include suicide from depression, despair and hopelessness – of which there is plenty in Macau right now.
COVID is “old hat” in the rest of the world
Google the expression “old hat” and you’ll get a definition of “something considered uninteresting, predictable, tritely familiar, or old-fashioned”. Another way of saying it is “yesterday’s news.”
Frankly, the rest of the world has moved on from COVID. Economies are opening up, tourism is back, and COVID has been displaced from the front pages of the world’s media by the conflict in Ukraine, various elections and political manoeuvrings around the globe, and all manner of current affairs affecting people’s lives.
Mention COVID to most people in other parts of the world and they’ll likely say something like, “Oh yeah, remember that. That was crazy while it lasted, wasn’t it?”
Macau is still the second safest place in the world
This bears repeating: no one has died in Macau from COVID (well the disease anyway, some may have died from the economic consequences). Of the 230 countries, territories and locations monitored by worldometers.info, only nine of them have had no COVID deaths. Of those nine, Macau has the second lowest rate of cases per capita in the world, after the extremely isolated tiny Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu – even after adding in the recent cases.
I had a zoom meeting with someone in Hong Kong yesterday who was unfamiliar with what is going on in Macau right now. When I tried to explain it to her, the immense gravity of us having 71 cases emerge since Sunday (that was the running tally at the time of our meeting) she essentially burst into laughter. Hong Kong has had nearly 10,000 deaths and around 1.2 million cases (around 16% of the population) so far. Our dramatic “71 cases” was an utter joke to her.
Economic zero – when the cure is worse than the disease
IAG ran a touching story yesterday in which a despondent local vendor trying to work his small tourist souvenir shop at the Ruins of St Paul’s area described our current situation as “economic zero not COVID zero.” Judging from the reaction we received yesterday from this story, it touched a raw nerve in many who were feeling much the same way.
We’re now in a position where many do not fear the health consequences of COVID any more – instead they fear the economic and societal consequences. The economic consequences – “economic zero” if you like – are plainly obvious for everyone to see. Livelihoods have been decimated. The concessionaires are losing almost a billion US dollars a quarter, every day sees more Macau SMEs going bankrupt and unemployment is on the rise.
The societal consequences include massive and systemic mental health issues, domestic violence, families torn apart, travel obliterated, compulsory quarantining which many describe in terms of prison sentences, discombobulating children’s education and forced testing sucking up valuable time, energy and resources.
A final word. This article is not written in the spirit of the ongoing “COVID zero versus living with the virus” debate we see being played out in Hong Kong, mainland China and a few other places. That debate is often couched in political terms with China in the “COVID zero” corner and “the west” (whatever that is) in the “living with the virus” corner. It does not escape me that I am not ethnically Chinese, and some might jump to the conclusion that as a “westerner,” this article is a political criticism. That conclusion would be false.
I have lived in Macau for 13 years and have long considered it my home. I want to stay in Macau for the rest of my life assuming it can go back to what it was – a thriving success. And the best way for us to get back to that thriving success is to take a cold, hard, rational, scientific and holistic view of the current situation.
We have 110 cases. That number will grow, maybe into many hundreds. Maybe even thousands. But getting COVID now means – for the grand majority – a few days in bed feeling quite poorly, and then snapping out of it. I know people who have got COVID – twice! And they are totally fine. Very, very few get very seriously sick. Only about 1 in 500 are dying.
On the other hand, we have “economic zero” – a total decimation of the Macau we once knew. Lives, businesses and families turned upside down, and in some cases destroyed.
I’m simply asking, is this all worth it?