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Lights out in Macau amid coronavirus outbreak

07 February 2020

By Daisy CL Mandap

The area around the ruins of St. Paul, which used to teem with people, is now eerily deserted

In the 15 years that she has been in Macau, this is the first time she has seen its flagship hotel and casino, Lisboa, without its lights on, says  Filipino community leader Lulu Portuguez.

But then, these are hard times not only for Macau and the whole of China, all because a novel coronavirus that was first seen in the central city of Wuhan, has crossed boundaries rapidly, contaminating people in several places around the world.

Macau has so far recorded a relatively small number of 10 coronavirus cases and no death, despite its porous borders with China and Hong Kong, but is taking no chances.

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When a worker at Galaxy casino was confirmed to have the disease on Feb. 4, all 40 or so casinos in the former Portuguese enclave were ordered shut for two weeks, dimming the city for the first time since it became the gambling capital of the world in the early 2000s.

The sight makes Portuguez, a restaurant owner who heads the Filipino Community Alliance in Macau, a bit sad, though still upbeat about the city. “Kikinang ka rin ulit,” she said of Lisboa, echoing a friend’s sentiment.
It's the first time the glittering Grand Lisboa has been shut down

Portuguez relates that much of the city has been quiet since the casinos, along with schools and government offices, have been closed to prevent the spread of the pneumonia-like disease.

Chief Executive Ho Iat Seng took the preventive measures further today. Feb 7,  by extending the closure of all government offices, except the “essential departments,” for a second consecutive week, until Feb. 16.


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The near-shutdown has reportedly left Macau’s streets nearly empty, with residents just venturing out to buy food and other essentials. Many restaurants have closed and small food outlets like hers are often asked for takeaways by customers who prefer to eat at home.

There is no panic-buying as in Hong Kong. “Napakatahimik ng mga citizen,” Portuguez said.

If there is a rush to stock up on food and other goods, she said it is only because everyone tries to limit the number of times that they have to go out, in line with the government’s directive about avoiding crowded places.
Also, unlike Hong Kong, Macau does not have a big problem about the availability of face masks, said Portuguez, because the government has a centralized distribution system that ensures locals  of a regular supply.

Under this system, Macau residents and non-resident workers are entitled to buy a pack of 10 facemasks at the fixed price of 8 patacas, every 10 days,  from designated pharmacies, health centers and stations run by the Health Bureau.

“Hindi ka pwedeng bumili ulit kung hindi pa tapos ang 10 days kasi they can check,” she said.

Unfortunately, tourists and others who don’t have the required Macau ID and the “blue cards” of documented migrant workers, can’t avail of the government-priced face masks, and have to buy them at highly inflated prices from commercial shops.

Not having a mask is a big problem in Macau because no one is allowed to board public buses or enter banks without wearing them
.
Portuguez is appealing for face masks for Filipino tourists in Macau

“Kaya kami we’re sharing our masks with tourists,” said Portuguez. “Yung para sa mga anak ko na hindi naman kailangang lumabas ay binibigay na lamang sa kanila.”

But the spare masks won’t go a long way, given the number of Filipino tourists stranded in Macau now, since all flights going to Manila and back have been cancelled in the wake of a travel ban imposed by the Philippine government on Feb. 2.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Macau has been a magnet for Filipino tourists, especially those hoping to get a job in the city’s gaming industry, as they can fly in visa-free, and are allowed to extend their visas for up to a month, again for free.

Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong often also cross the border to Macau to wait for a new working visa there, instead of going back to the Philippines where they can be subjected to additional fees and restrictions.

For Filipino community leaders like Portuguez, that’s just half of the problem, because an equally big concern is the thousands of overseas Filipino workers stranded in the Philippines now because the travel ban prohibits them from flying back to Macau.

She is unable to say how many Macau OFWs are stuck in the Philippines because of the ban, but presumes the number is bigger than usual because many workers were allowed to fly home for a vacation because of the recent Lunar New Year holiday.

“Personally, ang gusto ko sana ay mag charter na lang ang gobyerno natin ng eroplano para makalipad sila pabalik ng Macau dahil baka mawalan sila ng trabaho,” she said.

Her group is due to meet with other Filipino community organization in hopes of finding a solution to the problem.


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