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Why international association meetings matter in dark times

Globalisation, that catchall to describe our ever-closer integration, is under attack.

A resurgence of nativism, sporadic acts of terrorism, the threat of global heating, and a trade war between the US and China, have all exposed the underlying fragility of a process that has transformed the world we live in.

Now a pathogen of microscopic proportions has got politicians, economists, and newspaper columnists talking about a fundamental reshaping of the economy and geopolitics.

The coronavirus outbreak has underscored the world’s over-reliance on China as the workshop of the world and the dangerous asymmetry of the global supply change.

It has shown us a dark flip side of international travel: how porous our borders have become, the vanity of attempting to contain a disease that can incubate for two weeks.

Worryingly for international associations and other organisations, COVID-19 has put us off meeting, too.

This was put into stark relief when dozens of exhibitors withdrew from the Barcelona-based Mobile World Congress, forcing the organiser, GSM Association, to cancel the flagship tech show.

Since then hundreds of association meetings all over the world have been cancelled or postponed in response to a virus that has penetrated every continent save Antarctica.

A hyperventilating media, sometimes highlighting the spread of the virus on a case-by-case basis, has worsened a raw sense of  panic, making rational, long-sighted, decision-making harder than ever.

Fear is spreading as fast as the virus. And with varying degrees of alacrity, governments have responded in draconian fashion: closing borders, banning events, stopping travel, and sending children home from school.

Lives matter but so do livelihoods and, as harsh as it may sound, a balance must be struck between protecting the former while doing as little as possible to jeopardise the latter. (In fact, the two are linked. Studies have shown a strong association between unemployment and suicide, for example).

Now is the time for sensible heads. For a calm analysis of the situation and for international co-ordination. It is not the time for nations to panic and metaphorically throw up the shutters. Sharing data and expertise will play a crucial part in winning this battle.

However, most experts agree it is right to literally throw up the shutters. To restrict social interaction and movement as much as possible to ensure we limit the damage this virus has the potential to cause. In this way, we can be ‘together apart’. Only by keeping ourselves to ourselves for a limited period of time can we – the association community included – show that we are ‘in this together’.

International associations exist to bring people together and promote common causes. In doing so they act as a bulwark against those who thrive on stoking division and animosity. Let us not forget, that international meetings can have a truly transformative impact on host destinations, raising skill levels and spreading vital expertise, particularly in the developing world.

Globalisation has not been an unqualified success. The process, which started in the 19th century but has rapidly gained pace in the last few decades, may well need reshaping to meet the challenges of the future, whatever they may be when this crisis is finally over. But international association meetings, face-to-face or online, represent the best of what closer integration with our neighbours has given us, and when all of this is over, the show, as they say, must go on.