Tokyo Olympics, Art Basel, K-pop shows: Asia worries about big events amid coronavirus spread

February 3, 2020, 9:45 AM UTC

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday that Japan is keeping in close touch with the World Health Organization and other groups to ensure a coronavirus outbreak will not affect the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Abe’s statement comes on the heels of rumors that Japan may cancel the Olympics over fears of the coronavirus, which has now infected more than 17,000 people worldwide and killed 362.

Organizers had to refute rumors sparked on social media after a German news outlet reported on a meeting between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Health Organization (WHO)—which did take place—and stated that the outbreak “may have a significant impact on the Games.”

The IOC said in a statement that “Tokyo 2020 will continue to collaborate with all relevant organizations which carefully monitor any incidence of infectious diseases and will review any countermeasures.”

The first confirmed coronavirus-related death outside of China was reported in the Philippines on Sunday.

Some infectious disease experts have said the coronavirus may escalate to the level of a pandemic, which is when a disease is spreading on two or more continents. The outbreak is currently classified as an epidemic, which is when a disease is spreading within one population.

When the current outbreak, which causes respiratory illness, was first detected in December in Wuhan, where it originated from an unknown animal, there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. Now, China, Germany, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the U.S. have confirmed person-to-person transmission of the virus, which spreads through cough and sneeze droplets in the air and is exacerbated by proximity.

The novel coronavirus is spreading faster than SARS, which infected less than 10,000 people when it spread in 2002-3, and the number of novel coronavirus deaths in mainland China has exceeded the country’s SARS deaths.

Fear of the high infection rates of the coronavirus is causing a bevy of event cancellations across Asia and the rest of the world, even in countries with a low number of virus cases and relatively low risk.

Postponements and cancellations

Many organizers waited for emergency health declarations, from local governments and the WHO, before moving forward with full cancellations or location changes for their events.

The day after the U.S. government altered its travel advisory for China to “do not travel”—the most extreme designation—on Jan. 30, the Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled its Asia tour, which would have taken the group to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, and Taipei, all of which have reported coronavirus cases.

The United Nations Convention on Biodiversity was slated to meet in Kunming, China on Feb. 24. After the WHO declared an international public health emergency on Jan. 30, the UN moved the biodiversity talks, a precursor to the critical Cop15 summit in October, from Kunming to Rome. The October talks are still scheduled to take place in Kunming for now.

Asia Horse Week, a major global equestrian meetup scheduled to take place in Hong Kong in February, was cancelled. An Olympic qualifying tournament originally hosted by China in Wuhan was entirely shifted to Sydney.

The scrapping or rescheduling of events in Hong Kong represents even more bad news for a city that officially entered recession last year due to the impact of months of antigovernment protests. The unrest led to numerous event cancellations and drops in tourism and retail—the same sectors that were hit the hardest by the SARS outbreak in 2003, says Yifan Zhang, associate professor of economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Zhang predicts that, just like during SARS, Hong Kong’s retail, tourism, airline, and food and catering sectors will feel the brunt of the coronavirus outbreak.

“These are the sectors that will be affected the most in Hong Kong. The economy was already in a bad condition after the antigovernment protests.” Zhang says.

Safe planning or fear mongering?

Coronavirus fears have led to conflict in some sectors between those calling for event cancellations and those who think the fears are overblown.

Art Basel Hong Kong, scheduled for March, has come under pressure from overseas art dealers to cancel and from local Hong Kong gallerists to run the event and avoid “fear mongering and sensationalism” regarding the virus, which has infected 15 in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, some large-scale conferences in mainland China, where the majority of coronavirus infections and all but one of the deaths have occurred, have not announced any plans to cancel. The Boao Forum and the China Development Forum are both scheduled for the end of March and organizers have not announced any changes due to the coronavirus.

In New York City, which has no confirmed cases, organizers cancelled a lunar new year festival last week over fears of the virus. The city is currently awaiting results for three suspected coronavirus cases.

K-pop boy group Super Junior cancelled two concerts in Seoul and GOT7, another K-pop group, postponed shows in Thailand and Singapore, which each have just under 20 confirmed virus cases. GOT7 did not provide new dates for the concerts.

Other events have made adjustments in lieu of all-out cancellations. At the Pyeongchang Peace Forum in South Korea, which has 15 confirmed cases, there will be fever scanners located at entrances and facemasks and hand sanitizer available. Participants with connecting flights in China were asked to change their routes, and Chinese delegates to the forum will be participating via video conference.

Elsewhere, events that are running as scheduled face reduced turnout and participant cancellations. Two U.S. aerospace companies, Textron Inc. and General Dynamics Corp’s Gulfstream division, dropped out of the Singapore Airshow, Asia’s biggest airshow, because of risks associated with the coronavirus.

In Hong Kong, organizers of an annual spring reception representing 600 of the city’s stock brokerages were forced to cancel the event, which will cost almost $20,000 in the form of a non-refundable deposit.

“That is expensive but we still need to cancel it, as we need to avoid a crowded event. We did not opt for a delay, as we do not know when the outbreak will end,” Gordon Tsui, chairman of the Hong Kong Securities Association, told the South China Morning Post.

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