World Economic Forum moves 2021 annual meeting from Davos to Singapore to escape COVID-19

December 8, 2020, 5:17 AM UTC

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The World Economic Forum will hold its annual meeting in Singapore in 2021, marking only the second time in two decades that the global gathering of business and political elites will have convened outside the Swiss ski town of Davos.

“The change in location reflects the forum’s priority of safeguarding the health and safety of participants and the host community,” the WEF said in a statement.

The WEF’s annual meeting is so closely associated with the Swiss town that hosts it that the gathering is also known simply as “Davos” for short. The last time the meeting was held outside Davos was in 2002, when it relocated to New York City—partly out of solidarity for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and partly because security costs had skyrocketed to millions of dollars in their wake.

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Next year’s annual WEF meeting will take place in May, rather than its usual time slot in late January. The WEF made the decision to postpone the summit in June. Then in October, the WEF opted to relocate to Lucerne, a Swiss city with a more temperate climate.

The decision to relocate the meeting to an entirely different continent demonstrates unease with the level of COVID-19 infections across Europe, even as vaccine rollouts appear on the horizon. On Friday, Switzerland reported over 4,000 new cases of COVID-19, while Singapore reported three.

Public health experts held up Singapore’s tactics in tackling the disease as exemplary when the COVID-19 pandemic spread at the start of the year. The city managed to keep local infections to a minimum without shutting down the economy.

However, a business conference held in Singapore in late January captured global media attention after a British attendee returned to Europe and infected several other people during his journey. The conference was dubbed a “superspreader event.”

The Singapore government also overlooked a massive outbreak in the cramped dormitories that house the city’s migrant workers earlier this year, leading to a sudden surge in infection. Between the end of March and mid-April, Singapore’s daily caseload rocketed from 35 to a peak of 1,426—pushing the city into a strict lockdown phase.

The city-state is now tentatively emerging from shutdown and seeking to reboot its tourism and events industry. A recent plan to open a “travel bubble” with Hong Kong, allowing passengers to travel between the two cities without undergoing quarantine, was scrapped after Hong Kong entered a “fourth wave” of COVID-19 transmission.

But Singapore does operate several “green lane” arrangements with countries including China, South Korea, and Indonesia. Green lanes allow corporate and diplomatic travelers to undergo testing in lieu of quarantine on arrival.

When the WEF annual meeting convenes in May next year, Singapore will have accrued months of experience in managing pandemic-era travel, likely while maintaining low infection rates.

But it’s worth noting the Singapore meeting won’t be the first “Davos” event of the year. In January, during the week when the annual meeting ordinarily convenes, the WEF is hosting a virtual summit called The Davos Agenda. The online forum will see the usual crowd of politicians and business leaders exchange views on how to drive the post-pandemic economy.

Then in April, the WEF will host the Global Technology Governance Summit in Tokyo, in person. It seems global leaders feel they can achieve only so much without rubbing shoulders.

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