MWC Shanghai falls victim to COVID-19

MWC Shanghai has become the latest casualty of the coronavirus pandemic after the GSM Association said it had canceled plans to hold the event between June 30 and July 2, as originally intended.

In a statement published last Friday, the trade association said its decision reflected the advice of Chinese authorities as well as travel restrictions and international concern about the deadly virus.

The cancellation of the GSMA's big Asian show comes weeks after it was forced to scrap MWC Barcelona, its flagship event, following the withdrawal of its main Western exhibitors and attendees.

The move is another massive blow to an organization that derives most of its annual income from the international trade show circuit.

But it will cause jitters outside the GSMA, too: MWC Shanghai was not due to begin for another ten weeks, by which stage many would have hoped for some return to normality, and China is supposed to have the outbreak firmly under control, according to reports circulating in the mainstream media.

Internationally, the latest figures show that more than 165,000 people have now died from the disease officially known as COVID-19, while more than 2.4 million have been infected.

The virus first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and has been blamed on a livestock market where its transmission from animals to humans is widely thought to have occurred.

Since then it has prompted the worst economic slump in decades as countries have been forced to shutter businesses and impose harsh restrictions on movement to contain its spread.

The US, Spain and Italy now rank as the three worst-affected countries, accounting for nearly half of all confirmed infections and about 52% of deaths attributed to the virus.

While China has reportedly eased restrictions, official government advice to which the GSMA refers says: "Activities that call for gathering people should not be organized in principle."

Conference organizers will be watching closely to see when that advice changes, with the GSMA indicating it is in talks with Chinese authorities about finding a suitable date and venue for regional conferences in China in the second half of the year. "We will confirm the feasibility of this in the coming months," said the GSMA in its statement.

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The organization was widely criticized for its initial reluctance to cancel MWC Barcelona even as major exhibitors including Ericsson, LG and NTT DoCoMo announced they would no longer be attending.

Spanish authorities at that stage showed no inclination to restrict travel or block an event that reportedly generates revenues of nearly half a billion euros for the local Catalan economy.

But the GSMA was eventually forced to cancel the show when it became clear that most of the world's big vendors and telecom groups would no longer be attending.

It has subsequently unveiled a compensation deal for exhibitors. Companies that did not pull out before the event was canceled can choose between a partial cash refund and discounts off future exhibition fees, while companies that withdrew have been offered only discounts.

The news about the Shanghai event may heighten concern about the risk COVID-19 could pose to next year's MWC Barcelona if countries have not firmly dealt with the virus by early 2021.

Although some European countries have begun easing restrictions, China's stance on mass gatherings will make other governments wary of moving too quickly and risking another spike in infections.

Yet to file recent accounts, GSMA Ltd, the GSMA's parent company, made revenues of nearly $217 million for the fiscal year ending in March 2018, with conference activities accounting for almost all of that figure, according to an IRS filing. Sales rose from about $186 million in the previous fiscal year.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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