Should, or will, the Mobile World Congress (MWC) go ahead?

Photo by Digital Vision

Last week the GSMA boldly announced that the mobile industry’s premier event, the Mobile World Congress, would go ahead, as scheduled, in Barcelona in a few weeks’ time, despite the outbreak of coronavirus in China.

The GSMA said it was monitoring and assessing the potential impact of the coronavirus outbreak. It would adhere to safety recommendations from the World Health Organisation and governments and provide additional medical support on site.

That was almost a week ago, and a lot has happened since then, but none of it good with regard to the outbreak. The number of confirmed cases continues to escalate, as are the numbers of deaths. More countries are closing off borders to Chinese travellers and anyone even remotely suspected of carrying the virus, or simply having a high body temperature.

Flights to and from China are being cancelled, countries are implementing sometimes draconian measures to prevent the spread of the virus and it seems like mass panic is starting to set in – with no help from the media.

This is so reminiscent of the SARS outbreak when I was residing in Singapore, it and Hong Kong being at the centre of the outbreak. Not being one to follow the norm I continued on as if nothing had changed or thinking that I was so tough I would never catch SARS, let alone succumb to it. At the height of the outbreak, I remember travelling to Hong Kong from Singapore on a flight that had only nine passengers and eight staff. It was the best flight I have ever been on!

Call me stupid, but I never wore a mask, or avoided public places – but I also never caught SARS. Now, I’m not advising anybody to follow my crass behaviour, but I am sure millions will not be going anywhere that is remotely dangerous until this ‘emergency’ has subsided.

But getting back to the MWC that is supposed to be starting in a few weeks’ time, it seems ridiculous to expect the current outbreak to miraculously disappear by then. The big Chinese firms have already come to that conclusion and are already cancelling or planning to cancel media events in Barcelona.

They know that staff will not be allowed to travel out of China in time for the event, and even if they have Chinese staff located off-shore that are able to get to Barcelona, people may be reticent to visit their stands or even get close. Such is the power of social media and the press instilling these fears, rightly or wrongly, in all of us.

For the GSMA, the question must be, is it worth taking the risk and holding the event as planned or would it make more sense to postpone it to a later date, if at all possible, or even cancel this year’s event altogether?

Even at this stage it must be clearly evident to any Wally that thousands, if not tens of thousands, will not be going either by choice or restriction. Companies must be asking if it is worth the risk and whether their insurance covers them at a time when travel advisories are saying not to travel to high risk areas unless absolutely necessary. Does an international conference of 100,000 attendees qualify as a high-risk thing?

Yes, I know, there are many, many millions of dollars at play here but the GSMA appears to be damned whatever it does.

If sponsors and exhibitors don’t get the numbers, they will be unhappy. If attendees get less than they expect in terms of exhibitors or conference sessions, they won’t be happy. If fewer people turn up, Barcelona won’t be happy. Maybe the Spanish authorities might step in and say the risk to the country is too great. (That should add fire to the Catalan separatist arguments!) What is more likely is that the transport workers of Barcelona will decide that a total strike is called for and cripple the event totally, once and for all.

Whichever way you look at it, the GSMA is exposed, and no amount of safety plans, positive huffing and puffing (or deadly silence) will change things in time for the door opening.

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