The annual telecoms industry gathering event, the Mobile World Congress (MWC), was cancelled on Wednesday following a mass exodus by exhibitors over fears over China’s coronavirus pandemic.
The annual event which draws more than 100,000 visitors to Barcelona was cancelled by the GSMA telecoms association that hosts the get-together.
“The GSMA has canceled 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 John Hoffman, the CEO of organizer GSMA, in a statement.
The announcement was made after a crisis meeting of the GSMA board, after its hand was forced by the pullout of anchor European members including Deutsche Telekom, Nokia, Vodafone and BT.
Spain’s Telefonica, one of the biggest telecom operators which did not announce a pull out, stated it “understands the GSMA’s decision to cancel the Mobile World Congress 2020 due to the situation generated by coronavirus.”
It went on to add, it would always support Barcelona as host city of the Mobile World Congress.
Ada Colau, Barcelona’s mayor, said she wanted to send a “message of calm,” and insisted that the city was ready to host the event; Spanish health officials reiterated that there was no reason to call off MWC.
“There is no evidence at present to suggest that there is community spread outside China, so WHO is not currently requesting that large gatherings are canceled,” said WHO’s spokesman Tarik Jasarevic in Geneva.
WHO’s statement did not alleviate concerns among major exhibitors that the precautions taken would be insufficient to halt the virus, which has spread beyond China, to more than two dozen countries.
“To bring people together and connect them: That is what Telekom stands for. This is also what the Mobile World Congress, the ‘class reunion’ of our industry, stands for,” posted Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Hoettges on LinkedIn and added, a large gatherings of people with many international guests posed a particular risk – “To take this risk would be irresponsible.”
The Chinese contingent at MWC which has numbered 5,000 to 6,000 in recent years, has made the event particularly vulnerable given the outbreak in China which has killed more than 1,100 people in that country alone.
Major Chinese exhibitors, including Huawei, had stuck to plans to attend and had ordered staff at-risk to isolate themselves in advance and had drafted in replacements from elsewhere to run event stands and host clients.
The GSMA had banned attendees from China’s Hubei province, where the coronavirus outbreak began, and had placed a requirement for others to prove that they had been outside the country for at least two weeks prior to the event.
Significantly, the coronavirus has proved to be contagious even when people who have caught it are asymptomatic, meaning that people attending might not even realize that they could infect others at MWC.
Tracking the meetings and movements across the Fira trade grounds and the city of Barcelona of anyone who later tests positive would be a herculean task.