CORONAVIRUS

Spanish government and WHO question cancellation of Mobile World Congress

Organizers of the trade fair are citing causes outside their control to avoid paying compensation

Workers, some with face masks, after the cancellation of the Mobile World Congress.
Workers, some with face masks, after the cancellation of the Mobile World Congress.ALBERT GARCIA

The Spanish government and the World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday questioned the decision to cancel the Mobile World Congress (MWC), a leading cellphone innovation trade show that was due to take place in Barcelona later this month.

“There is no public health reason that is preventing holding this type of event," said Health Minister Salvador Illa. The show’s organizer, the industry association GSMA, officially cancelled the MWC on Thursday after major participating companies backed out over Covid-19 coronavirus concerns, including Nokia, Sony, Amazon, Ericsson and Intel.

“With due regard to the safe and healthy environment in Barcelona and the host country today, the GSMA has cancelled MWC Barcelona 2020 because the global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event,” said GSMA CEO John Hoffman in a statement.

Organizers are citing a “force majeure” situation in a bid to avoid having to pay out hefty compensation to companies that had invested significant time and money on an annual showcase that draws more than 100,000 people and 2,800 businesses to the Catalan capital.

The MWC, which has been held in Barcelona since 2006, has an estimated economic impact on the city of close to €500 million and creates over 13,000 temporary jobs. Hotels, restaurants and taxis are some of the sectors that will feel the effect of the cancellation most keenly.

Besides the health minister, other Spanish government officials have also questioned the reasons behind the decision. “It’s not over any health alert in our country; we are in a very good response situation,” said Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo. The Spanish economy chief, Nadia Calviño, made similar statements: “With the information currently available and the recommendations of public health experts, there is no public health reason that prevents holding an event of this nature in our country.”

There have been two reported cases in Spain of the coronavirus, both imported. Both patients have been described as mild cases and have been quarantined at hospitals in the Canary and Balearic islands.

So why did the GSMA choose to cancel the trade show? Mats Granryd, director general of the industry association, cited “many statements by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control [ECDC] and other institutions.” This week, the ECDC issued a series of recommendations to follow at large gatherings of people, and said that during the containment phase, “the cancellation of mass gatherings in the EU may be justified in exceptional cases” but that the decision to cancel should be coordinated between the organizer and public health officials as well as other national authorities on a case-by-case basis. There is no evidence that the GSMA came to an agreement with any public officials to cancel the MWC.

The WHO has backed this position. “We cannot be the arbiter who decides whether [the MWC] should be held or not, but we can offer organizers guidelines on how to handle the risks depending on each event,” said Michael J. Ryan, director of the WHO’s Health Emergency Program. “These risks can be reduced through very simple measures. Even if cases are detected, the risk can be managed. With the right precautions, we believe that many of these events can be held; there is no need to scare people.”

Most scientists and experts consulted by this newspaper insisted that there was no public health reason to cancel the trade show. One exception was Oriol Mitjà, a specialist in infectious diseases at Germans Trias i Pujol Hospital in Badalona, in Catalonia.

“The transmission of the infection is high and hard to control,” he said. “According to mathematical models developed by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, with just three imported infections there is a probability of over 50% for a local outbreak to occur.”

This expert noted that MWC was expecting nearly 20,000 visitors from the Asia Pacific region, including over 5,000 from China. He said that confined spaces full of people “are ideal for the transmission of respiratory viruses.”

With additional reporting by Pablo Linde and Álvaro Sánchez.

English version by Susana Urra.