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Don't Panic, but 2020 will be a Tough Year for Conferences

COVID-19 coronavirus is spreading. We will probably all need to change behaviour over the coming months to ensure it’s kept under control. This unfortunately means it will be a tough year for conferences of all kinds. We’re already seeing cancellations. The question is for how long this will go on?
Grady Booch tweeted this piece of great Texan humor:
I have personally been very much in doubt what to mean about the Corona virus. The But friday, the Danish government has adviced all events of more than 1000 people to be cancelled. My son is a big fan of the Eurovision Song Contest so we had tickets for the big show in Copenhagen. It wasn’t cancelled, but was broadcast without any audience. It was a strange experience to watch, and we are sad we missed the live show. It would have been so much fun. And it’s not only Denmark. Italy is shutting down schools. Friends coming home from Japan are to stay two weeks in quarantine. Are governments panicking? Or are they – as some seem to suggest – conspiring on to make people to panic (put your tin foil hat on)?
The World Health Organization (WHO) is very clear in its message:

The fight against rumours and misinformation is a vital part of the battle against this virus. We rely on you to make sure people have accurate information about the threat they face, and how to protect themselves and others. […] This is not a drill. This is not the time to give up. This is not a time for excuses. This is a time for pulling out all the stops.

(Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general on March 5th).
So what will we be facing?
In this country, Søren Brostrøm, director of the Danish Health Autority, spends a lot of time explaining things on TV. Yesterday he tweeted an article from The Lancet discussing  “How will country-based mitigation measures influence the course of the COVID-19 epidemic?” It’s a long article that probably requires a bit of understanding of epidomology to fully grasp. I’m no expert, but I get this:

  • We can have an uncontrolled epidemic that will affect a lot of people during the coming few months. This is what will happen if no actions are taken against the epidemic, i.e. if we go-on with life as usual.
  • If governments implement interventions that cause us to socially distance more from each other, the situation can be kept better controlled.
  • Severe interventions like those implemented in Wuhan can probably stop the epidemic, but is that realistic? It will hurt the economy severely, and the virus might resurge when the restrictions are eventually lifted.

Qualitatively illustrated, it looks like this (copied from the article):
Note the month numbers. If we’re in month 1 now and the interventions currently being implemented work, we’ll be following the green curve and the epidemic will be under control, but continue for six months or more.
The researchers can’t predict how many will be infected, but I see some experts saying practically everyone will, though far from everyone will get sick.
We’re in a state of uncertainty, though. Doctors and experts are cautious to say much definite. There’s still a lot to be learnt about COVID-19.
For example data about the virus’ genome and mutations spreading across the globe can be tracked online from the NextStrain database.
More usefully, WHO is posting useful facts and advice daily on twitter.

WHO on conferences

I think conference organizers should carefully read this March 3rd announcement (PDF) from the WHO:

There is a risk that people attending your meeting or event might be unwittingly bringing the COVID-19 virus to the meeting. Others might be unknowingly exposed to COVID-19. While COVID-19 is a milddisease for most people, it can make some very ill.

I have personally already experienced a conference cancelled due to COVID-19. WHO says conference organizers should consider whether a meeting is needed.
Could the event be replaced by an online event? If no, then organizers have to be prepared: Pre-order sufficient supplies and materials, including tissues and hand sanitizer for all participants. Surgical masks should be available. Response plans should be developed in case someone at the meeting becomes ill.
We still have to build trust. As an icebreaker, the WHO suggests, participants and organizers should practice ways to say hello without touching. But the more boring precautions should be followed too: Regular hand-washing or use of an alcohol rub by all participants at the meeting of course. There should be tissues and closed bins to dispose of them in. And conferences will need space: Seats should be arranged so that participants are at least one meter apart.
It doesn’t even end with the event, WHO says: “If someone at the meeting or event was isolated as a suspected COVID-19 case, the organizer should let all participants know this. They should be advised to monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days and take their temperature twice a day.”

So what will all this mean for me?

I think many of us will want to avoid conferences this year. I’m not a smoker, but I’m male and 50, and I can’t consider myself out of risk of serious illness. But we all need to take it seriously, as even those who will get infected, but not ill, will spread the virus.
But conference organizers also need to take this seriously. This is not a drill.
I think most of us will be extra careful. Employers will probably be less inclined to approve people going to conferences. I love the sharing and learning at conferences, but I think we can sadly be certain that 2020 will be a tough year.
Updated 09.03.2020 with correct link to Lancet-article
Thanks to NIAD for this picture of a 3d printed CORONA virus model.