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Coronavirus caution justified

Deutsche Welle Fabian Schmidt App NEU
Fabian Schmidt
February 13, 2020

There is no need to panic about coronavirus. But we also shouldn't take unnecessary risks by bringing together tens of thousands of businesspeople from around the world, says Fabian Schmidt.

The media rushed to get a glimpse of the new Mate X
Image: DW/K. Ferguson

The cancellation of this year's Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona is not some irrational overreaction to the outbreak of the new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. Quite the contrary: it is a responsible reaction to the outbreak, which has now infected nearly 60,000 people around the world.

Read more: Coronavirus containment in Europe working 'so far,' says Germany's Spahn

The telecoms industry's biggest annual gathering attracts roughly 100,000 exhibitors and visitors from around the world, not to mention all of those people who work at the fair. Since China is the world's leading manufacturer of mobile communications components, operating systems and apps, it also sends the largest contingent of exhibitors to the fair.

Thus, it isn't surprising that fair organizers began to worry about safety when many of their Chinese exhibitors announced they would not be able to attend this year's event. In light of the current global health crisis, the cancellation of the MWC is certainly the most reasonable solution to the problem.

Fabian Schmidt
Fabian Schmidt works in DW's science department

Journey more dangerous than the fair

For a virus to spread rapidly, nothing is more effective than a huge international event. Nearly all those who would attend would arrive by plane, packed together for hours with 300 to 500 other passengers in an aluminum tube.

And that's not the only way to catch the virus: handrails in trains and busses, ticket machines, luggage carts, the door handles of taxi, hotel breakfast buffets, elevators — all that and more could be a potential source of infection. The risk that thousands of people could help spread the virus throughout the world is simply too great.

Will Germany's Carnival be canceled?

The Mobile World Congress is nothing like Carnival. Sure, tourists travel to events in Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Cologne, but most people come from nearby. Though hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people visit such events, they remain relatively local celebrations, and don't significantly contribute to the spread of deadly viruses.

Still, participants are well advised to take care at local events: Avoid the most jam-packed gatherings, wash your hands regularly and avoid kissing everyone you meet. And for those with signs of illness, stay in bed and don't go out into the streets.

What about the flu?

One could argue that major international trade fairs should be cancelled during flu season as well. On its face, that would seem to make sense, as a flu can indeed be extremely deadly. That was seen at the end of World War I, when within a matter of months more people died from the Spanish flu than during the entirety of the four-year conflict.

Read more: Closed, canceled, downsized: Coronavirus hits Chinese culture

But comparisons between the coronavirus epidemic and the flu don't quite make sense. The flu has been extensively researched, and we know a lot about the virus and how it acts. People at risk can even be immunized against the flu — but quarantine is pointless, as the illness can strike anywhere at any time.

Early days for coronavirus

The story is entirely different with the coronavirus. Geographically isolated, its spread — with few exceptions — has been halted thanks to strict quarantine measures, giving hope to those who think a pandemic can be avoided. That optimism has been buoyed by the fact that China, which initially ignored the problem, has implemented a repressive quarantine policy. It remains too soon, however, to say if that policy will entirely halt the spread of the contagion.

We also know very little about the new virus. Does it have long-term effects? How many people actually have a mild coronavirus infection? How lethal is it?

Until we have definitive answers to such questions, the only appropriate action can be to exercise caution and cancel the occasional international event. Because once a virus is let loose in the world, there is no way to contain it.

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Deutsche Welle Fabian Schmidt App NEU
Fabian Schmidt Science editor focusing on technologies and inventions