The combination of a highly infectious disease, large numbers of tourists and the most densely populated city on earth made Macao look like a pretty dangerous place as news of the coronavirus began to seep out from China’s Hubei province in January. That the city has had only 10 cases, none of them fatal, is little short of a miracle. On a natural level, this has undoubtedly been the result of the decisive and early action of the Macao government and its new chief executive, Ho Iat Seng; on a supernatural level, the fact that the Bishop of Macao, Stephen Lee Bun-sang, immediately urged the faithful to turn in fervent prayer to their traditional patron in time of contagion, St Roch, has clearly been effective.
Macao is very obviously a Chinese city, although many of its buildings, its people and its food bear witness to the 450-year influence of the Portuguese, who administered the 12.7 square mile spit and two associated islands until 1999. Three quarters of Macao’s economy is connected to casino gambling (with seven times the revenue of Las Vegas) and last year nearly 40 million tourists visited (the vast majority from the mainland with the purpose of gambling). It could have been a recipe for pandemic, particularly since the outbreak occurred at the Chinese Lunar New Year, a time of astonishing mobility across China, with 400 million people returning to their home provinces for the holidays.
Since news of the Covid-19 virus in Wuhan became known, China has been in lockdown. When I was in Beijing in mid-January, there were no unusual restrictions on movement.
A week later one of my colleagues was prevented from returning to Macao from her parents’ home in Jiangsu province, even though at the time there were no cases there. She got back to Macao last week, dressed in protective clothing and wearing the compulsory face mask, after a 4am dash to the airport, an internal flight and a tense border crossing. Such stories are legion.
The Macao government – largely autonomous of Beijing under the “one country: two systems” arrangement shared with Hong Kong – took action immediately after Chinese New Year, before even a single diagnosis. Schools, universities and public buildings closed. Residents were urged to wear masks and engage in frequent, thorough hand-washing. In early February officials virtually shut the border with the mainland, closed the casinos and asked the various religious authorities to close churches and temples for the duration.
With the approach of Lent and the season of the Procession of the Passion of Christ, this has hit the Catholic community acutely. Masses are streamed online and the faithful (at least if their messages are anything to go by) are keeping up the rounds of prayer with devotion that astounds. We were asked to remain in our homes unless leaving was absolutely necessary and, for about three weeks, the city was eerily quiet. Things are now relaxing but still without the usual manic bustle.
Life hasn’t been without its lighter moments. Our university – the University of Saint Joseph, the only Catholic university in China – was able to move all its teaching online. But ageing professors like me are not immune from holding an hour’s webinar without turning the microphone on – Asian students are far too polite to point out that they can’t hear you.
Frequent trips out for food seem always to involve stopping for a pint or three with a few other expatriates at the cathedral café, run by Stephen Anderson, a phlegmatic Australian, and his Macao-Chinese wife, Polliy, whose contribution to my sanity should not go unremarked.
The government has announced some lessening of restrictions and our churches will open again on March 7 – although schools and universities remain shut. What the real situation is just across the border is anybody’s guess. But in Macao, at least, it seems normality might be just around the corner.
Deacon Stephen Morgan is Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies at the University of Saint Joseph in Macao