COVID-19 spread shows GSMA totally made the right call on MWC

the internet contract sign here gsma covid-19 mwc
Image credit: Everett Collection |

Normally this would be the week that I file my post-show report on Mobile World Congress. Only, of course, there was no MWC to report from this year. After several weeks of dithering – and a growing exodus of key sponsors and participating operators – the GSMA decided to cancel the show because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Given developments since then, it’s clear that it was absolutely the right decision – and not just because allowing the show to continue would contravene SDG 3.

That’s not to say it was an easy or painless decision – the GSMA is reportedly paying a heavy price for it. And while the GSMA may not disappear entirely as a result, it has a very tough year ahead of it – not least in terms of negotiating with exhibitors and sponsors for some form of compensation that doesn’t include refunds. But frankly, none of its options were any easier.

Not everyone agrees, of course. I’ve had a number of conversations with people who have criticized the GSMA – or at least the companies who forced the GSMA’s hand by bailing – for caving in to COVID-19 hysteria.

Reasons vary, but the argument that keeps coming up is that the flu infects and kills far more people per year than COVID-19, and the extra health and hygiene measures MWC put in place would have been more than sufficient to manage the problem, so why are we freaking out and cancelling lucrative events like MWC over something you’re statistically less likely to catch?

This is, in my opinion, a terrible argument.

Fuzzy logic

Mind you, it’s an argument often put forth with the best intentions by people who want to be the stoic voice of reason – they think citing cold clinical statistics will help everyone get a sense of perspective. ‘The point isn’t that we should worry more about the flu – it’s that we currently don’t worry that much about the flu, and you’re more likely to catch flu than Covid-19, so why worry?’

That might sound logical – but it’s not. Rating the risk of COVID-19 vs the flu isn’t as simple as comparing stats or which one is deadlier.

According to Wired, the flu infects and kills far more people because it’s been around for so much longer. More to the point, flu has been around longer, so we’re more familiar with it. We have an idea of how it works, how to detect it and how it spreads.

In the case of COVID-19, we’re trying to figure all that out in real time with a virus whose symptoms may not manifest for as long as several weeks – during which time anyone else around you is at risk of contracting it, which defeats standard measures like health declarations and fever checks.

In this Scientific American blog post, Professor Zeynep Tufekci makes another key point about epidemiological statistics – they’re not set in stone. They’re highly dependent on context and external factors, including how people respond to an outbreak:

The infectiousness of a virus, for example, depends on how much we encounter one another; how well we quarantine individuals who are ill; how often we wash our hands; whether those treating the ill have proper protective equipment; how healthy we are to begin with—and such factors are all under our control. […]

In other words, the strategy of any outbreak should be to be as proactive as possible in “flattening the curve” to not only minimize infections, but also ensure that medical resources are not overwhelmed, which not only endangers COVID-19 patients but patients with flu and other maladies.

That means doing more than just wearing a mask, washing your hands properly and avoiding physical contact. It also means screening travellers, going out as little as possible and avoiding mass gatherings, whether it’s the world’s biggest mobile tradeshow, a vacation cruise or a hot pot meal with your extended family.

Crowded house

While the GSMA added a lot of preventative hygiene measures in line with WHO recommendations, they likely wouldn’t have been effective enough for the simple reason that such measures work best when everyone follows them. Not everyone would (and if you knew how many people don’t wash their hands after using the toilet even when there’s not a pandemic in progress, you’d never shake hands with anyone again). And it wouldn’t take more than a couple of people clandestinely infected with COVID-19 to spread it around.

Ask anyone in South Korea, which as of Monday had over 4,200 COVID-19 cases. Over 60% of those are connected to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, which became a hot zone after one infected member showed up for church on February 20 – with symptoms, yet.

Granted, unlike the GSMA, Shincheonji reportedly took virtually no measures to protect its members or discourage them from attending services, which is why its founder Lee Man-hee reportedly might be arrested on murder charges.

The key point here is that Shincheonji services are generally packed, making it especially vulnerable to a viral outbreak. If you’ve ever walked the MWC exhibition floor (or even better, stuffed yourself into a packed train car to take the R8 line to the Fira Gran Via), you can imagine the results if just one infected person was present – and who the infected (as well as their respective governments and/or lawyers) would hold responsible for it. Try whipping out the “but the flu is worse” argument in court and see where it gets you.

So credit where it’s due – painful as it may have been, the GSMA made the right call. Here’s hoping they survive it.

PS: Wash your damn hands.

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