Small world

Risk-aversion pursues the international conference circuit.

Alan Cork

Topics Politics

SARS is the latest in a long line of panics that have gripped the world.

There have been many times in recent years when a new fear has captured the imagination of the media and a nervous general public. Suddenly, what started as a small story is portrayed as a threat to the whole planet, almost causing the world to stop in its tracks.

As managing editor of a publishing and exhibitions group that organises conferences and exhibitions around the globe, my company is vulnerable to all the fears and crises that the modern world throws up.

This year has been a particular case in point. We put on a show in Cairo, Egypt, at the end of February. In the month before it opened, many people called up to ask if we would be cancelling the show in light of a potential war in Iraq. There was much shaking of heads and sharp intakes of breath when we said the show would go on, no matter what. One company decided not to send its executives, but to make them available via video link instead. The exhibition went ahead, and it was a great success.

In the middle of March we held a well-attended exhibition and conference in Vietnam. It wasn’t until we were travelling home that a small news story broke about a flight of American passengers being quarantined because of a new ‘super bug’ from Asia. They hadn’t starting calling it SARS then, but the notion of nasty rampant bug was enough to strike fear into many.

Next we have a show planned for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in May – and even though Malaysia is not on the ‘at risk’ list, some are in a state of hysteria. A couple of companies have said they will not show at the exhibition. Other companies are waiting to make a last-minute decision as to whether they will attend. We have no intention of cancelling.

SARS has killed a couple of hundred people, and 97 percent of the people who contract it survive. You are in much greater danger of catching malaria in Malaysia; and around the world, some one million people are thought to die from malaria each year. Why are our potential attendees not worried by that?

There have been many collective fears in recent decades. In the 1970s, there was the energy crisis. I attended conferences in the 1970s where experts and forecasters predicted that all oil and gas reserves would be exhausted by the end of the century. Some even predicted a return to horse-drawn vehicles and local manufacture and distribution.

Then there was the ‘Greenhouse effect’ in the 1980s, with some experts predicting boiling, rising seas, and a return to desert landscapes and droughts as water dried up. There have been more recent panics about GM foods, cloning and nanotechnology, the millennium bug that was supposed to have wiped out computers and caused planes to fall from the skies with the dawning of the year 2000….

I am not saying that people who travel to certain parts of the world should not be concerned about SARS – but let us get it in proportion. We cannot put life on hold and hide in bunkers. We just have to get on with it.

Alan Cork is managing editor of a number of technical and business magazines published by dmg world media

Read on:

Apocalypse from now on, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Viral scares, by Stuart Derbyshire

The SARS farce, by Mischa Moselle

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Topics Politics


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