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COVID-19 Unmasked: In Asia, the show must go on

The nightlife scene in Asia is far from extinguished, so is scaremongering the west justified?

  • Patrizio Cavaliere
  • 20 February 2020

With the recent outbreak of the COVID-19 virus bringing a deluge of frightening headlines daily, it's perhaps understandable that – despite the World Health Organisation advising against avoiding travel – many events within close proximity to the source of the eruption have cancelled or postponed. Though troubling news, this doesn't reflect the complete picture on ground level. The situation inside China is certainly severe, but elsewhere in Asia there are several high-profile events on course to go ahead as planned, and a nightlife scene that is far from extinguished. We spoke to locally-based promoters and agencies to ask if the scaremongering is justified, and what can be done to help mitigate risks associated to the outbreak.

“I think a lot of the panic has been caused by governments jumping the gun too quickly and sensationalism from the press... the joys of living in an era of clickbait,” said Marc Roberts of Asian-based booking agency FMLY. “It’s also difficult to judge the actual risk with so much misinformation flying around."

These sentiments are echoed by the official advice of the World Health Organisation, whose director-general, Thedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recently stated that “this is a time for facts, not fear.”

If, however, there has been a tendency towards overreaction by the press, perhaps this hasn't been an altogether bad thing? “I think the risk was heavily exaggerated very early on which has turned out to be a positive thing,” said Coran Maloney of Bangkok-based Kolour In The Park, whose event featuring Black Coffee and Mousse T is taking place on March 7. “Everyone has stepped up precautions so heavily, that if you look at the infection rate for Thailand, it's very low. If the infection rate starts to increase here, then we would start to worry, but that's just not happening now and the data shows that."

The Kolour team will also be taking special measures to help safeguard attendees. “There are some key areas we're taking precautions on. We're working with the local hospitals to provide a ramped-up medical and first aid team. We're heat testing at the event to check if anyone is showing signs of fever... We're providing hand sanitisers and masks will be available at the event."

“We're monitoring the news and stats multiple times daily... we're working with authorities and we have a green light. If at any point they told us it was too dangerous, we'd cancel and refund our guests."

Another festival proceeding – albeit with a slightly adjusted line-up – is Singapore's Garden Beats 2020, who's Facebook page says they are “committed to producing a safe and magical festival experience for everyone” by introducing added health and safety measures, including heat testing and sanitisation – a strategy also implemented to great effect by the organisers of the Maya festival, which ran as planned over the last weekend of January in Thailand. Wanderland festival in the Philippines is also due to continue with a slightly adjusted line-up, saying, too, that they will implement “health and safety measures prescribed by professionals."

“Preventative measures such as washing your hands properly... should be the way forward alongside increased detection measures” agreed FMLY's Marc. “I think the face mask side of things is still open to debate on a scientific level. But that's a personal choice.... loads of us wore face masks at raves in the ’90s (remember Altern-8?). So, there will be a nostalgia element to things for a few of us."

Marc was also keen to offer an insight into the genuine reasons for some of the cancellations, shedding light on a practical, rather than reactionary, explanation in many instances.

“From an agent perspective, I think there needs to be clarity on why artists are cancelling shows. The vast majority are not cancelling because they are scared of the virus — they want to play for their fans” he offered. “But If an artist had, say, three shows in a weekend and one was in China and it’s cancelled, that can make the tour run at a loss. So, in that case, it’s a purely business decision."

And, while it's doubtless that a raft of artists are pulling out of Asia tours, this isn't universally the case. “Mostly things seem relatively normal,” said Oliver Wolfson of Bangkok's Safe Room night club. “Thankfully we've had no artist cancellations yet... though some agencies are asking for extra financial consideration considering their DJs are getting cancellations in the area."

Meanwhile, other promoters are taking the opportunity to utilise the cream of the regions artist pool to fill gaps left in their line-ups. “We have had two major international bookings postpone until later in the year... we decided to use it as a glass half full situation and book some legendary SEA international DJs for March who have never performed in Singapore before,” said Matty Wainwright of Singapore-based The DJ Dispensary. “Hopefully it's business as usual from April onwards."

And as for those inside China, which is effectively on lock-down for the time being, Robb Harker from Supermodified Agency was empathetic towards all the cancelled shows that he's been faced with. “The health and safety of the Chinese people, our local partners there and our touring artists is our primary concern so, although the loss of bookings isn't something we are happy about, it's secondary to our wish that the outbreak is brought under control quickly and life in China returns to normal."

What are the official statistics?

Digesting the data is difficult because it's constantly evolving. While the novel coronavirus has caused devastating scenes in China's Hubei, the situation outside of the epicentre, and even more so, outside of the country, is currently not as bleak.

At the time of writing, there are presently 1,100 laboratory-confirmed cases outside of China – more than 600 of which are quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan – and infection rates inside of China appear to have been steadily dropping in recent days. When one considers that an estimated 5-10% of adults and 15-20% of children will catch influenza each year, with an estimated 290,000- 650,000 influenza-associated deaths annually, it becomes easier to view the COVID-19 statistics with some perspective.

Also reassuring, is freshly published research from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) found that more than 80% of the cases have been mild and the mortality rate of the Covid-19 virus at 2.3% – far lower than that of the SARS outbreak of 2002–2004.

It remains to be seen whether this will turn into a full-blown pandemic. Clearly, a situation such as this warrants a serious and measured response. With many Asian promoters heeding official advice and proceeding with sensible caution, the underground music community here are hopeful of keeping the dance moving until this unfortunate storm has passed.

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