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Coronavirus: a test-case for event risk management

What next? That’s the question haunting meeting and event planners as the novel coronavirus shows its contempt for national borders, crossing them with steady and deadly impunity.

As the number of fresh cases declines in China, there has been a marked increase in parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Latin America has recorded its first case, too, with a 61-year-old man who recently visited Italy testing positive in Brazil.

There’s a grim fascination in observing how organisations respond differently to the unfolding crisis, and what this says about our attitude to what Donald Rumsfeld famously called the ‘known unknowns’ – those risks which derive from recognised but poorly understood phenomena.

We know that holding a large event anywhere must heighten the risk of spreading the virus, but it is not clear to what extent. Nor is it clear how effective measures to minimise risk at large gatherings can really be – given that any attendees who are carrying the virus will surely be oblivious to the fact.

South Korea, where 1,261 cases people are known to have been infected, resulting in at least 12 deaths, gives us an interesting snapshot of how organisations are managing risk.

Here, some have favoured a no-risk policy. The International Studies Association, for example, has postponed an international conference in Seoul, South Korea, which was due to take place in July – four months out. Seoul, it is worth noting, is 170 miles away from Daegu, the city at the centre of the outbreak.

Others are biding their time. At the time of writing, the International Water Resource Association had yet to decide on its international convention, which is taking place in Daegu, two months earlier in May.

Soon these might be decisions facing event planners all over the world – even in Europe, where the outbreak is spreading. In Italy 12 people have died from the virus and 400 people have been infected. Austria, Switzerland, Croatia, Spain and France have all recorded cases linked to the outbreak in Lombardy.

Organisers, no doubt studying the fine print of their contracts with venues and other key suppliers (specifically the wording around those all-important force majeur clauses), must ultimately make a call: to press ahead or postpone.

Of course, the decision might be taken out of their hands entirely.

Scotland’s chief medical officer has warned that major sporting events, rock concerts and other large public gatherings could be banned across the nation in the event of an outbreak in the country.

Meanwhile the World Health Organization (WHO) has published a nine-page document with key recommendations for those planning ‘mass gatherings’ in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak. It is worth reminding ourselves of what they are.

Besides basic risk management advice, the document has advice on crowd density, how participants will interact, venue layout, registration, and the average age of attendees.

Taken from the WHO guidelines:

  • Participants and staff should stay away from events when ill.
  • Promote hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, including with informational materials that reach a wide range of age groups and varying reading and educational levels.
  • Soap and water or alcohol hand-sanitizers and tissues should be easily accessible in all common areas, and especially in areas set aside for medical treatment.
  • Reduce crowding.
  • Isolate persons who become ill.
  • Where possible, event organisers should consider distancing measures to reduce close contact among people during a large event (e.g., increasing the frequency of transport and staggering arrivals and minimizing the number of people who congregate at one time at sanitary stations and food and water distribution areas).
  • Organisers should plan for the likelihood of persons becoming ill with fever and other symptoms of COVID-19. Establishing isolation areas in on-site medical treatment clinics/facilities where such persons can be initially assessed and triaged should be considered. Persons who are ill can be provided with a mask to help contain respiratory