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Opinion

Reckless plan to move Davos 2021 to Singapore must be abandoned

Annual jamboree more likely to become a giant superspreader event

| Singapore
Cordoned off Merlion Park, pictured in June 2020: Singapore is a COVID-19 exemplar by being extraordinarily risk-averse.   © Getty Images

William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."

Here is a sincere suggestion concerning the World Economic Forum's plan to transport its annual jamboree of self-regard from Davos to Singapore: do not do it.

Not in 2021. Not with the pandemic raging again, at least a couple of new COVID-19 variants that epidemiologists are still trying to pin down -- that we know of so far -- panicking governments and economies only just picking up the pieces from 2020. Zoom call, anyone?

The same goes, of course, for the International Olympic Committee, which like WEF is headquartered in Switzerland, still thinking the Tokyo summer games are doable. Yeah, no thanks.

The reason Davos Man wants to fly swarms of private jets into Southeast Asia in May to clink Champagne glasses, hobnob and do deals is because parts of the region outmatched the West battling the coronavirus. Why, then, put that success at risk by jetting in, having a series of face-to-face encounters and then heading back to the four corners of the globe?

In its news release, WEF said: "This in-person meeting will bring together leaders to focus on shaping solutions to the world's most pressing challenges." Well, no challenge is more pressing than stopping the human transmission of a deadly pathogen. As for "shaping solutions," WEF may just be shaping the opposite: a fancy superspreader event 2021 does not need.

Davos leader Klaus Schwab's rationale for risking Asia's progress? "A global leadership summit is of crucial importance to address how we can recover together," he argues, presumably with a straight face. "The special annual meeting 2021 will be a place for leaders from business, government and civil society to meet in person for the first time since the start of the pandemic."

Davos's Singapore sling could end up starting a new way to make COVID-19 transmission great again.

Singapore should say thanks, but no thanks. But this, let us face it, is about money. WEF wants those massive attendance fees and corporate sponsorship cash. Singapore wants the gross domestic product jolt. It wants to get back to business and pump life into its hospitality industry. It also may worry that rivals like Hong Kong would grab the event if Singapore does not.

Why, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's government may be calculating, shouldn't we showcase our COVID-19 success? Singapore's in-person conference and casino industries, thriving pre-COVID, are keen to welcome throngs of six-star travelers.

This makes for quite the paradox. Singapore did the hard work of reducing community spread at great cost to the economy. It contracted nearly 6% in 2020, its worst-ever performance amid COVID-19 lockdowns.

Yet all this is short money. The risks, and likely costs later, may leave Singapore with buyer's remorse for hosting a giant global event now -- and WEF with some explaining to do.

Singapore is a COVID-19 exemplar by being extraordinarily risk-averse. Until recently, the Japan model also was among the toasts of the coronavirus era. But Japan appears to be going more the way of California than South Korea or Taiwan.

Shibuya crossing, pictured on Jan. 8: Japan appears to be going more the way of California than South Korea or Taiwan.   © Getty Images

As Robert Kim-Farley at the University of California told The New York Times: "We really did suppress and flatten that first wave relatively successfully compared to others. The very successes that we had, built in a potential complacency from the part of people thinking it is maybe not that severe."

This same pattern may be afoot in Japan. Surging infection rates forced Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's ruling Liberal Democratic Party to declare a second state of emergency. That does not augur well for hosting an Olympics expecting to attract one million-plus visitors.

This strategy is already going off the rails at home. A recent Kyodo News poll found that roughly 80% of Japanese thinks the Olympics should be canceled or at best rescheduled again even as vaccines arrive. Last week, Taro Kono, minister for administrative and regulatory reform, signaled a marked change in the government's certainty about Tokyo 2020. The Games, he told Reuters, "could go either way."

All the more reason for Davos Man to do a virtual summit in May. And it is about to have a dress rehearsal. During the usual Davos week, which this year runs Jan. 25-29, the WEF folks could devise plans for a Zoom-based extravaganza this year.

Let us get real here. It is not like the United Nations is meeting to achieve world peace or save lives somewhere. It is not like the World Health Organization is getting top virologists into a room together to protect humanity. The corporate glitterati can easily use technology, like the rest of us, to connect without risking physical contact five months from now.

This is the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York that WEF wants to hold its elite talkfest away from Davos. That 2002 gathering in Manhattan, the cradle of capitalism, made metaphorical sense. Gathering in Singapore is more a matter of craven convenience -- and of resting on the city-state's laurels battling a pandemic that is thriving anew.

A word to the wise at WEF headquarters: start working on a Plan C, a virtual one. Odds are that Plan B in Singapore will go awry.

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