Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Apr 09, 2020
The Covid-19 crisis and the Austrian response

The Covid-19 crisis was predictable and predicted. Many called it wrongly a Black Swan, even a grey rhino, while, in fact, it was a White Swan as described by Nassim Taleb, the author of ‘The Black Swan’, who famously predicted the Great Financial Crisis in 2007. The reality, is that most incorrectly understood the Covid-19 crisis, and thus were unprepared for what was coming; while, on the other hand, those dealing with systemic thinking and complex systems, who outlined a realistic scenario of the global virus outbreak  in January itself, were sitting in a quiet corner and watching the crisis unfold.

Austria, a middle-sized republic at the heart of Europe, often acts, due to its historic past and intercultural legacy, as a bridge between the so-called Old Europe, encompassing the founding members of the European Union (EU) guided by France and Germany, and the so-called New Europe, composed of the post-Soviet Central and Eastern European countries from the Big Bang Enlargement wave that took place between 2004 and 2007. The Austrian Government – a coalition between the Conservative party, which won 37% of the votes in the last parliamentary elections, and the Green Party, which not only re-entered the Parliament after two-years of absence but also became part of the federal government for the very first time, was just about to begin its work in January when Covid-19 hit China first.

Once the Covid-19 outbreak spread to the European continent in February, the initial reaction of the European countries was to act on its own. Austria was no exception to that rule. In fact, the Alpine republic was one of the first countries to report confirmed Covid-19 cases by the end of February in the province of Tyrol. A combination of downscaling the extent of the Covid-19 outbreak, coupled with pressure from the tourism sector during the height of the skiing season, resulted in a nine-day delay to quarantine Ischgl and the neighbouring villages. As a result, many European countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, reported a significant rise of confirmed Covid-19 cases, once their nationals returned from holiday in the Austrian region of Tyrol. Ultimately, the Austrian government had to put all 279 communities in Tyrol under full quarantine on18 March, due to the unprecedented scale and speed of the virus outbreak.

What was Austria’s approach towards the Covid-19 crisis?

This is only one of many examples of how local authorities and national governments in Europe underestimated the risks emanating from the Covid-19 virus. In fact, Europe quickly turned into one of the new epicentres of the virus outbreak at the beginning of March, with Italy and meanwhile Spain being most seriously hit by the crisis. Against this background, the Austrian government introduced the first restrictive measures in most parts of the country on 9 March, particularly because of the soaring death toll and contagion numbers in neighbouring Italy. As of 8 April, the Ministry of Health reported 12721 confirmed cases, of which 1096 persons are hospitalized and another 267 patients are in intensive care. Austria belongs to the countries that still reports comparatively low death toll numbers – 220 so far. The number of conducted tests currently amounts to 120.755 persons, which is very low as compared to the population size of the country (around 1,3 %). The Austrian approach is aimed at ‘flattening the curve”, which has not been achieved, however, the situation seems to be moving in the right direction, since the daily rate of new infections is steadily decreasing.

What kind of lockdown measures have been initiated in Austria?

Austria suspended all flights to China on 29 January amidst the ongoing virus outbreak in the China’s Hubei province, the epicentre being Wuhan. The first Covid-19 cases were confirmed in the province of Tyrol on 25 February. Consequently, the Austrian authorities closed the border to Italy for travel-related purposes on 10 March, following the first public appearance of the Government regarding the Covid-19 crisis a day earlier. A week later, they also banned gatherings of more than five people to limit the spread of the virus. Furthermore, border controls with almost all neighbouring countries were introduced, as well as schools and universities closed, while only grocery stores, pharmacies, post offices and a few other critical institutions remain open to the public. Social distancing and self-isolation were launched for the broad public. These very restrictive measures allowed only three exceptions – a system-relevant work (e.g. police, medical personnel etc.), shopping and assisting the most vulnerable in society. Meanwhile, places such as restaurants, bars and cafes are closed, all gatherings are forbidden, and police patrols on the streets control whether the population adheres to the restrictions, while fines are introduced for those who do not comply with them. In April, the authorities also introduced compulsory face masks in all groceries and shops as well as in the public transport. So far, the Government has extended all domestic restrictions until the end of April, however, it has also introduced plans how to start reopening non-essential stores and gradually boost the economy. The chancellor introduced a step-by-step timetable, outlining a series of phases to ease the lockdown and revive the economy in the country, starting with non-essential stores on 14 April and continuing with malls, shops, and hair salons on 1 May. All public events will not be permitted until July this year.

Whatever it takes, whatever it costs

In the light of the urgency of the situation, the socio-economic repercussions are expected to be enormous, therefore the Government has introduced a €38 billion package covering short-time work agreements, compensation payments, as well as social security and tax contributions. The immediate effect of the quarantine is reflected through the rising level of unemployment; March’2020 saw 52.5 percent more unemployed people, as compared to the same month of the previous year. The national unemployment rate rose by 4.7 percentage points to 12.2 percent in March this year. Clearly, the government intends to do ‘whatever it takes, whatever it costs’ to mitigate the socio-economic effects from the Covid-19 crisis, which would amount to more than 10% of the Austrian GDP altogether. The greatest challenge faced by the Government, after the present health crisis, is to find a way how to partially restart the economy and decrease the unemployment rate.

Preliminary outcomes

The European governments, including Austria, wasted valuable time to prepare with an adequate response to the crisis, unleashing dire consequences that we are currently witnessing in Italy or Spain. And yet, some of them launched swift response measures and were quicker and more resolute in their approach than others. Recent polls reveal that the public perceives the Austrian actions overwhelmingly proportionate and adequate, which is why most of the population is adhering to all restrictions and limitations of daily life without many objections. It is yet too early for assessing Austria’s crisis response; however, it can be summarized that Austria’s key to success was the timely, relatively transparent and bold leadership, coupled with an efficient coordination between the Government and the opposition, on the one side, and all relevant institutions, stake holders and experts, on the other. To conclude, Austria clearly cuts a good figure with regards to the containment of the Covid-19 outbreak, due to the precautionary principle introduced at an early stage and the well-functioning crisis response mechanisms. Thus, Austria will also be one of first countries in Europe to ease the lockdown and restart the economy.

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Velina Tchakarova

Velina Tchakarova

With over two decades of professional experience and academic background in security and defense Velina Tchakarova is an expert in the field of geopolitics. Velina ...

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