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Coronavirus: how fear of the unknown is testing nerves

I seldom have nightmares, but when I do they conform to type. The threat is always non-specific. I am not being chased down a side street by rabid dogs; I am not in the crosshairs of a sniper. Instead my dread comes from a shapeless feeling of uncertainty that intensifies to the point where I can stand it no longer. When my wife asks why I was yelling in my sleep, I can only shake my head: ‘dunno’.

Although the current outbreak of novel coronavirus – or COVID-19 – carries a specific threat, it is uncertainty around the spread of the disease that is causing such widespread anxiety. How far has it travelled? How long will it last? Is containment really possible? Will the virus mutate? Why are there no reported cases in Indonesia? How accurate is the official data coming out of China?

Added to that is uncertainty about how we should respond to the outbreak, both emotionally and practically. Should we be scared? How scared? Is a one or two per cent mortality rate high or low? Are we guilty of over-reacting to the threat of the virus? Or, on the contrary, are we not taking it seriously enough?

If your job is to organise international events, now must be a very difficult time.  Evidence from the ground suggests meeting planners are erring on the side of caution. I have heard reports of numerous associations who have cancelled events in Asia or taken the politically sensitive step of banning attendees from China.

Because of its size, and the fact that it attracts thousands of visitors from China, the London-based GSM Association’s Mobile World Congress, in Barcelona, has been making the news headlines, but hundreds of smaller association events will be facing similar problems.

Guiseppe Marlette, president of the European Society of Association Executives (ESAE), told me the response to the outbreak had been piecemeal and marked by doubts and reservations.

“A number of ESAE members and associations are having trouble deciding whether to cancel conferences or limit participation from Chinese delegations, which is not an easy one,” he said. “But all the information I have heard is very random and there has been nothing formalized yet.”

The longer the outbreak continues, the greater the economic pressure to return to business as normal. As it stands the Chinese Lunar holiday has been extended until this Friday, after which citizens will be told to go back to work. But if the steady decline in the infection rate over the last few days is a sign China’s containment strategy is working, that might prove a disastrous move.

Public health officials say there are still many unknowns, including its lethality, mode of transmission, what groups are most vulnerable to the virus and the success of quarantine measures. Amid all this uncertainty meeting planners and association executives can only follow developments as closely as possible, listen to the advice coming from the WHO and government bodies, and, to a large degree, go with their gut instincts. If that means postponing events, or hosting virtual events, or relocating events, then surely, while uncertainty abounds, these are steps worth taking.

For now, it’s a game of wait and see, because so many questions remain unanswered. As Gabriel Leung, chair of public health medicine at Hong Kong University and a leading coronavirus expert, told the Guardian newspaper, “Have these massive public health interventions, social distancing, and mobility restrictions worked in China? If so, how can we roll them out, or is it not possible?”