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Postponing Ireland Conference – & Maybe Myself? March 5, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Presenting, Private Life, science, UKOUG, User Groups.
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As I tweeted a couple of days ago, I never thought I would write something announcing cancelling an event due to a worldwide pandemic. And yet that was what I was asked to do earlier this week (first week of March 2020). It will be interesting to look back at this in the future and judge if it was a wise decision or an over-reaction. At present, I am 100% for Wise Decision.

This week UKOUG decided that, in light of the impacts & concerns around the COVID-19 coronavirus, to postpone this year’s annual Irish conference we hold in Dublin. I thought it would be interesting to some of you to know a little of how we came to that decision.

Firstly, this was a joint decision made by the event committee, the UKOUG board, and the UKOUG senior management. Discussions around the topic of COVID-19 and  had taken place between some of us over the prior 24 hours and the event committee had decided that, in their opinion, there was a strong case to not hold the event at this time. They discussed this with the UKOUG senior management and our CEO decided this deserved an emergency board call. This board call would not just consider the event in Ireland but also our future events, our staff, and our members. (In this post I’m only talking about the Irish event, but enough to say that we are taking steps to protect our staff and consider future events and how they might impact our members & the public, plus how we may replace physical events with remote ones).

Secondly, as you can see above, this was a considered decision and not a knee-jerk reaction.  We had people who live in Ireland involved, we considered feedback we had received from partners/sponsors and also delegates. We talked with the venue. We looked at factual information about COVID-19, it’s communicability & mortality rate (how easily you can be infected and how likely you are to die respectively). In the end the decision was easy as we were all in agreement, we needed to postpone the event.

Thirdly, there were several factors behind the decision to postpone OUG Ireland.

Public Concern

We had several presenters pull out from the event. For most their employing company had banned non-essential (or even all) travel, and some had decided that they personally did not want to risk exposure. A couple of sponsors were in the same situation of being told they could not attend. Further, we had concerned delegates contacting us asking if the event was still on or what steps we were taking. Some cancelled coming, again a mixture of diktat from employer or a personal decision not to attend.

Interestingly, we were getting as many new delegates signing up for the event as dropping out, so obviously some people felt COVID-19 was not an issue.

We knew we had enough speakers in reserve that we could call on to fill agenda holes but we also could see that more and more events were being cancelled across Europe and more companies were announcing travel limitations, so the cancellations were likely to escalate on the run-up to the event. What happens months ahead, no one knows, but for now the public concern is very, very high.

I considered titling this section as FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, & Doubt. But FUD is usually a derogatory term indicating a baseless over-reaction. I think there is a lot of FUD going on in the general public, but people in IT tend to be smarter than average and more balanced. I think it is very reasonable to be concerned to some degree and, as you will see at the end of this piece, the concern will vary depending on your personal circumstances. For some people (e.g those with Asthma or similar decreased lung capacity) there is a significant increased personal risk from this specific illness, it is not always a case of a simple “I’m worried about a pandemic”.

Financial Considerations

With the best will in the world, user groups needs money to put on events. There is a commercial aspect to this. Putting on an event that fails and loses money is a danger. We at UKOUG do insure our major events against Force Majeure, basically events beyond our control, but we are like all user groups in that we walk a tightrope of finance.

Cancelling an event does not always save any money as it has already been paid out. But if a sponsor gets a poor experience in return for their sponsorship £/€/$ they are not happy (and neither are we as the organisers). If delegates come and the event feels like an empty room or the agenda is not what they want, they may not come again. As you can see, it is complex

I have to say that for Ireland we benefit from an excellent relationship with our venue, we have held the event at the Gresham in Dublin for several years and our committee & office know them well. They reduced the potential financial impact on us by offering us flexibility in re-arranging this event.

I make this point as some user groups (and of course, other companies) putting on public events in the near future may find that they have no such flexibility. For them cancelling a conference could actually kill the user group financially or result in individuals losing a lot of money. Did you know that sometimes it is individuals or a very small company that is bank-rolling your usergroup events?

For some user groups the financial consideration will be far more acute than it is for UKOUG.

Public Health

This is not the same as public concern. Public concern is about the actions people take in response to a danger or threat. Public Health is about the actual, real threat.

At present you (yes, you reading this) are almost certainly in more danger of being murdered, killed in a road accident, or dying of normal ‘flu than of dying from COVID-19. And have been all year. And yet none of you stopped living your normal life because of those threats. Most people who will think they have COVID-19 over the next month will actually have either a standard cold or normal influenza. And in fact 90% or so of those who catch COVID-19 will not be that ill. Medical testing is the only sure way of knowing which disease you have had.

But COVID-19 spreads relatively easily via fluid contact – droplets in the air through coughs & sneezes but, more commonly, similar dampness on hard surfaces by people touching their mucous membranes (think eyes, nose, and mouth) and then door handles, surfaces, smart devices. You then touch these surfaces and then your face and you have transmitted the disease to yourself.  Prevention methods are all about constant washing of hands and avoiding touching things. Face masks do diddly squit except if you are in the situation where people might cough in your direction (so medical staff) or to help prevent you coughing the virus out and infecting others. I find it somewhat ironic that in some places so many people have rushed to wear face masks to protect themselves from others but actually it will be doing more to protect others from them.

COVID-19 also has a higher degree or mortality than ‘flu. It stands at about 3.4% at present, compared to 0.1% for standard influenza. I’ve seen arguments that “the real rate is lower as it kills mostly old people or those with underlying conditions”. Well, of COURSE it kills those groups more, that is true for all other diseases. Influenza mostly kills the old, the very young, and the at-risk. That 0.1% is measuring a similar spread of deadliness as the 3.4%. If you get COVID-19 you are something like 30-40 times more likely to die of it than if you get typical influenza. An oddity of COVID-19 is that it does not seem to affect babies and toddlers as much as influenza does. So this new disease is overall more dangerous to adults, especially older adults, than flu than the basic figures indicate…

The mortality rate has increased from around 2% to 3.4% over the last month. Why? Mostly as people are now aware of COVID-19 and deaths will be correctly attributed to it rather than wrongly to other, similar things (like ‘flu). It’s almost certainly not getting more potent. In fact, we might expect the mortality rate to drop as people with a mild version of the disease were probably not being recorded or were being wrongly diagnosed, so the total number of cases would be a lot higher. I expect this figure to drop below 2% for countries with a good health service and no unusually high elderly population.

So what are the chances of holding a user group event and someone infected with the disease coming to the event? Very, very low. The number of known cases outside China are, as a percentage of the population, sod all. But if someone infectious does come to the event? Catching COVID-19 (and in fact a lot of people catching it and it becoming a new source or widespread infection) is quite high.

For those of use who look at project risks it is a very low likelihood/very high impact risk. Something like a hard disk overheating and setting fire to the server. I’ve had that, by the way.

So far the steps taken to keep this disease from spreading are proving effective at slowing it down. But it is spreading. I personally think it is going to get worse before it gets better. Maybe a lot worse, and I am pretty cynical about most “we are doomed” news stories.

Large Oracle user group events are more of a risk than say a big party. Why? A lot of speakers and exhibitors come from geographically distant places, so you are bringing people together from a large area. These people travel a lot and meet a lot of people. It increases the risk. At a party everyone is probably local and if there is no one local with the disease, you are safe. Safer.

This is partly why I was very much in favour of postponing the Irish conference, it had an enhanced risk associated with it as we had an international contingent coming.

What makes me feel qualified to think this? I am not a medic and I am certainly not an epidemiologist (someone who studies disease spread), but I have the advantage of a degree in genetics & zoology and many years of working with the National Health Service and biological academia (some of it on disease and immunology). I am not an expert, but by accident of my history I am better informed than most.

These factors made Ireland too much of a risk, even if the likelihood of something bad happening was actually very low.

Smaller events are less risky and, at present, will go ahead. But all will be reviewed.

 

People want the event

The final factor is that people want the event. Either they do not think the risk is real or they feel that they will be OK anyway as they are young(ish) and healthy or “fate” or whatever. So they will come to the event anyway and cancelling it is “giving in”. Lots of large sporting events are now being cancelled (such as come 5 nations rugby matches) and I am sure a lot of fans are not happy about this. But these are exactly the mass gatherings of disparate people that will really help to spread COVID-19 and create a true epidemic.

In some ways, cancelling a large event could be seen as protecting the ignorant 🙂

 

Maybe Myself?

In the title I mentioned I might need to postpone myself. Why?

At the moment I am an At Risk person. 3 months ago I was in intensive care attached to the most powerful ventilator the NHS uses which does not need the patient to be knocked unconscious and a tube put down into the lungs. In fact, shortly after I was admitted and I was deteriorating, it was expected that I would probably be put into a medical coma and mechanically ventilated. I’m generally fine now – but my lungs are still damaged and recovering. I had influenza & pneumonia. I’ve been asked by a couple of people if I could have actually been a very early COVID-19 case? No. It was not known outside China at the time and lab tests identified the exact strain of influenza I had. If I had been diagnosed with an unknown strain I’d expect the sample would have been re-tested, but this is not the case.

I’m no more likely to catch COVID-19 than any of you, but if I do catch it I am more likely to be at the 3.4% end of things due to the slowly healing lung damage. This is another reason I have paid extra attention to the science behind COVID-19.

I probably should have cancelled my trip to Ireland before the event was postponed, but I was in that last area of consideration. I was not thinking it would effect me and I wanted to go to the event. In the last few days I’ve been advised by people who are clinically qualified that airports & public transport are not a good idea for me. My wife has expressed a desire for me to not give the whole intensive-care-kept-going-by-machines thing a second go as it stressed her. And the cat.

Smaller events I will probably still go to as the risk is lower. And events where everyone is local and there is no signs of the disease there. I really want to go to a meeting in Poland where this will be the case. But to get there I have to go through airports. Full of people from all over the globe. Hmmm.

Personally I am expecting more events, both user groups and generally, to be cancelled. Part of me thinks they should be, the very small risk of a very bad impact is not worth learning a bit more about some software – and you all know how passionate I am about learning.

I think I should be more mindful of the risks myself, but then am I over-reacting?

And I think COVID-19 is going to spread more and kill more people before prevention steps and, eventually, treatment is developed to keep it in check. But I really hope I am wrong on that.

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