Conferences canceled: Coronavirus' impact on development efforts

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Development professionals say that while safety is the top priority, event cancellations could impact work being done in the sector. Photo by: Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

BARCELONA — As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb, so too does the number of international conferences and events opting to relocate, postpone, or even hang up the lanyards altogether. Development professionals say that while safety is the top priority, the cancellations could impact work being done in the sector.

“Organizing two global events in the geographic area of a pandemic situation ... would not have been responsible and safe.”

— Yannick Foing, global lead of partner engagement, DSM’s nutrition improvement unit

“If they weren’t important, they wouldn’t be organized, would they?” asked Marieke van Weerden, director of safety and security at Catholic Relief Services, which is still deciding whether to move forward with April’s ICT4D Conference in Abuja, Nigeria. Conferences are also a way of raising awareness about how to prepare and safeguard against the disease, she said.

Yannick Foing, global lead of partner engagement in the nutrition improvement unit at DSM — a science-based multinational involved in nutrition, health, and sustainable living — said the postponed Micronutrient Forum 5th Global Conference and Second Global Summit on Food Fortification were meant to advance the discussions on food fortification and supplementation as well as commitments from all sectors. Originally due to take place in Bangkok at the end of March, the two events were “critical” in the run-up to the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit later in the year, Foing said in an email.

“That being said, organizing two global events in the geographic area of a pandemic situation with many delegates coming from Africa, Asia, and Latin America would not have been responsible and safe for delegates and speakers alike,” he added.

So far, over 80,000 people have been infected with the COVID-19 virus — which causes flu-like symptoms before potentially resulting in difficulty breathing — across 47 countries. Since the outbreak officially took hold in December, more than 2,800 people have died.

Claire Cranton, director of media relations at GSMA, said that prior to canceling MWC — which was set to take place in Barcelona this week — the organizers sought advice from health experts and partners. “We could not responsibly continue given the facts at the time and with the knowledge that in bringing together, a global audience, we might risk even one person becoming ill,” she said in an email.

MWC is not just about product launches but acts as an opportunity for businesses and others — including some in the international development community — to connect, Cranton said.

While CRS is still deciding whether the ICT4D event should go ahead and what can be done to create the safest environment, van Weerden said it doesn’t want to underreact. “But we also don’t want to overreact because as NGOs, we do have a mission and a duty of care to serve our communities and a duty of care for the people we work with and serve,” she said.

CRS plans to implement measures including swapping fabric towels for paper towels, distributing posters with messaging on how to prevent sickness, and encouraging those who are unwell not to attend.

In addition to MWC, organizers of events such as the World Ocean Summit and Milestone Systems' joint APAC/EMEA MIPS Conference have canceled their conferences.

Meanwhile, the World Bank’s Fragility Forum has been postponed, as has the 2020 Ibrahim Governance Weekend in Addis Ababa, the China Development Forum, and — at the request of the government of host country Bhutan — the 35th session of the FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific. The second meeting of the Open-Ended Working Group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which starts this week, opted to relocate from China’s Yunnan province to Italy, where the largest outbreak outside of Asia has taken hold.

Speculation continues to mount as to whether other events, both within and outside of the sector — including the World Bank Spring Meetings — will follow suit in the coming weeks. The website of the Skoll Foundation says it is "closely monitoring developments," but for now its forum is set to go ahead, as will London’s Bond conference, which will be hosted at the QEII Centre next month. A person attending a different conference in that venue was diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus earlier this month.

When asked whether cancellations of conferences could mean decisions are pushed back because they can’t be raised or debated at the public forums, Bond Events and Program Manager Lena Bheeroo said: “Bond has a full business recovery plan that will ensure that we can continue to drive forward consensus on a range of issues through virtual meetings and remote working.”

Van Weerden recommended that individuals planning to attend conferences and events check in with their own organizations, their own country’s version of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and on any travel advisories. She said it was key that development and humanitarian organizations supply their staff with trusted information so that they can make their own decisions as to whether they want to attend.

Update, Feb. 28, 2020: This article has been updated to show that the 2020 Ibrahim Governance Weekend was in Addis Ababa.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.