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Coronavirus threatens to throw world’s biggest phone show into chaos

Coronavirus threatens to throw world’s biggest phone show into chaos


LG and ZTE step back from MWC 2020, who’s next?

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Mobile World Congress
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

In under three weeks, the collective eyes of the tech industry will turn to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress, the biggest and most important trade show in the world of mobile communications. More than 100,000 attendees from nearly 200 countries are expected every year, and unlike CES in recent times, MWC still regularly manages to entice major manufacturers into announcing their most important devices at the show.

That’s the plan, at least — but this year, things may be a little different. The outbreak of the coronavirus in China and subsequent spread to other countries has claimed hundreds of lives. It’s also disrupting supply chains vital to the development of smartphones, and wreaking travel havoc in Asia, where most of MWC’s marquee exhibitors are based; many countries are restricting flights to and from China. LG and ZTE have already cancelled some plans for the show. It’s hard to imagine there won’t be further disruption.

Most Chinese companies are still planning to attend

MWC 2020 was set to feature an even larger Chinese contingent than ever before, with all of the country’s major smartphone brands planning a meaningful presence. As of today, that appears still to be the case. Xiaomi, Vivo, and Honor all tell The Verge that they remain intent on attending. Huawei is also still planning to make announcements at the show despite recently cancelling its Shenzhen developer conference, although sources familiar with the situation say the company is likely to axe certain events and significantly reduce the number of employees who travel. Qualcomm, Lenovo, and Motorola also tell The Verge that plans remain in place for MWC.

The GSM Association, which organizes MWC, maintains it’ll be business as usual in Barcelona. That’s understandable given the show has a big economic impact of 492 million euros this year, and also generates 14,100 part-time jobs, according to the GSMA. The GSMA is an industry trade body that represents more than 1,200 companies across the mobile ecosystem, and MWC is the chance for thousands to gather for partnerships, deals, and product launches for the global press.

LG G8 ThinQ
LG G8 ThinQ
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

“There is minimal impact on the event thus far,” the association said in a statement yesterday. “MWC Barcelona 24-27 February 2020 will proceed as planned across all venues.” The GSMA says it will be increasing medical support and disinfection measures on site and communicating best practices to attendees. Speakers will be subject to a new microphone changing protocol. A “no-handshake policy” is also being advised for all at the show, though that sounds impractical to enforce.

It’s no surprise to see an everything-is-fine statement from the GSMA at this point. MWC has been hit by public transport strikes multiple times in the past, causing chaos as attendees attempt to get around the city, and the association puts out identical press releases ahead of time to try to assuage fears with talk of contingency plans, which in The Verge’s experience tend not to be too effective. All the escalator handrail disinfectant in the world isn’t going to convince people they’re safe from an airborne virus.

Regardless of reassurances from the organizers and exhibitors, it seems inevitable that the coronavirus will have an effect on MWC. Cases have been surging in recent days, with no sign of the spread of the virus slowing down. It’s incredibly easy to get sick at trade shows at the best of times, and this is very much not the best of times. Various authorities are already advising people to avoid public gatherings, let alone events where tens of thousands of attendees are flying around the world to gather shoulder-to-shoulder in the same rooms. With cases of the new coronavirus confirmed in neighboring France and the nearby Canary Islands, a Spanish autonomous community, it’d be understandable if people were to think twice about attending.

LG alluded to that in its announcement, citing “the safety of its employees and [the] general public” and saying it wanted to “prevent needlessly exposing hundreds of LG employees to international travel, which most health experts have advised.” ZTE, meanwhile, said it was cancelling its press conference because it tends to be “an overly courteous company and simply [doesn’t] want to make people uncomfortable.”

It has to be mentioned, too, that Asian people around the world are experiencing a marked increase in xenophobia and racist attacks as a result of the outbreak, as was the case with the SARS virus in 2003. Employees of Chinese companies make up a huge proportion of the hundred-thousand-plus attendees at MWC every year, and racial discrimination is likely to increase at this year’s event. If MWC is to go ahead this month, the GSMA must do everything within its capabilities to crack down on this kind of unacceptable behavior.

Whether or not more companies decide to pull out of the show, MWC 2020 is likely to have a very different atmosphere to previous years. As ever, The Verge is planning to attend as long as we expect there to be news to cover — safely. But we already have two fewer companies to meet with than we thought we would, and we’d be surprised if that number didn’t grow.