– Marco Carvalho

Stanley Ho has been out of the limelight for more than a decade, but in neighboring Hong Kong, the name of the gambling tycoon continues to stand for excellence in the investigation of new pathologies, such as Covid-19. In the wake of the SARS outbreak, Ho created a medical foundation and was the main sponsor of a new research center dedicated to emerging infectious diseases. Patrick Huen, a banking executive who is also vice-chairman of the Dr Stanley Ho Medical Development Foundation, spoke with O Clarim about the tycoon’s lasting legacy.

Dr Stanley Ho Medical Development Foundation, of which you are the vice-chairman, was the main sponsor of the Stanley Ho Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, many years before we could imagine the world could face a public health crisis like the one we are experiencing nowadays. How important was the work done by the Centre during the last few years?

The Stanley Ho Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases or CEID was established in October 2003. In 2005, Dr Stanley Ho donated HK$25 million to support CEID to work against the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases in neighboring regions.  Since then, Professor David Hui, director of CEID and also Stanley Ho Professor of Respiratory Medicine, has been making significant contributions for the Pearl River Delta region.  No one would like to see another coronavirus outbreak after SARS, and our work done through CEID on influenza, SARS and MERS has increased infectious disease preparedness of our society in the past 15 years.  

The Centre has been working closely with the World Health Organization. How can the work being done by professor Hui and his peers help to tackle this epidemic outbreak? 

Professor David Hui represented Hong Kong working with his peers and the region to review the clinical management of influenza A (H5N1) during the early human outbreak in Vietnam in February 2004, and has since been a regular advisor to the World Health Organization on the clinical management of severe acute respiratory infections. He has contributed to the WHO treatment guidelines on clinical management of H5N1, H1N1 and MERS and the WHO training workshop in the clinical management of H7N9, in addition to joining several WHO missions on MERS in the Middle East and the Republic of Korea. His previous experience undoubtedly helped him and CEID to provide the HK and Macau governments and the public with useful advice to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

You are also the Executive Director of one of Macau’s biggest banks. This public health crisis is already having some foreseeable economical impact. The casinos remained closed for two weeks and the panorama is still far from normal. How long do you think this impact will last?

 It’s not about whether the casinos were closed or not. The casinos have now reopened but there are only a handful of gamblers given the strict control of tourists coming in and out Macau. The impact will persist as long as the control measures remain there. Having said that, I expect Macau’s tourism industry would recover very quickly once the borders with Zhuhai and Hong Kong have been reopened. The latest news is the reopening will take place on May 7th.  Tourists and gamblers from the mainland have been longing for the return to Macau. The majority of them are from the Southern part of China and they can come immediately. 

The gaming sector is at the heart of Macau economy. This public health crisis is affecting not only what happens inside the casinos, but also outside. Macau’s SMEs are very reliant on the casinos. How serious can this impact be  in the next few months?

The lack of tourists is more critical to SMEs in Macau, as gamblers tend to stay at the hotel most of the time.  Macau needs to attract more tourists – individuals and groups; families and business – by providing them with more reasons to come and experience it for themselves.  Gambling should only be one of the reasons for the tourists to come and one of the activities that will attract them to come again, though it will always be their top reason and choice, as Macau has firmly established its leadership in this industry.  Meanwhile Macau should promote local consumption through government assistance in order to help the local SMEs, as more customers and repeat purchases can be built up immediately and in large quantities with various marketing means like couponing, cash rebate or further subsidy.

What can the Government do to help tackle this situation? The Government will inject almost 39 billion patacas from the Macau financial reserves. What can this relief package mean to Macau’s economy? How should this money be used?

Macau’s economy relies heavily on spending by visitors. The consumption e-card scheme would help boost local consumption, which in turn, benefits the economy as a whole. I think the key is to keep SMEs in business, and minimize job losses as much as possible. Direct subsidy to local businesses for job retention and job creation during the hardest period certainly helps.

Depending on the resumption of what we could define as “normalcy,” do you think that these measures introduced by the Macau Government will be enough? Or the Government might have to inject some more money into the economy to keep it afloat?

The resumption of normalcy is crucial in the recovery process, be it medical, financial or social.  I am sure the Macau government will spare no effort in keeping the local economy afloat.  We can expect more initiatives to be announced by the government in due course after the Mainland-HK-Macau borders have been re-opened.

One of the economic sectors that has experienced the fastest growth in the last few years was tourism. Probably, we won’t be seeing the same kind of habits and the same number of people travelling in the future. Might this be one of the most affected sectors?

The tourism business will recover soon, once the medical and health issues have been addressed.  Confidence rebuilding and rebranding of certain tourist institutions, business modes and models like cruising will be started with the help of the governments and tourism boards around the world.  Creativity is important in enticing different groups of tourists to come back, and I believe the market potential and opportunities will be great, as the people have been starved of occasions and excuses for socializing for many months already.

People have been talking about the impact these measures will have on the Small and Medium Companies. What do you think will be the priorities for Mr Ho Iat Seng in the next few months? SMEs and what else?

The priority for any government is its policy address should always center around (1) health, (2) labor, (3) education and (4) housing.  SMEs fall into the second perspective, which hinges on the successful diversification of our economy. To me, job creation is the most important aspect now.