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Europe Versus Coronavirus – Austria and the Road to a "New Normal"

BLOG - 7 May 2020
Key Points
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Affected by the epidemic early on because of its proximity to Italy and inspired by the crisis response of East Asian nations, Austria has chosen to impose particularly strict social distancing measures on its population. The restrictive nature of these measures also stems from the presence on Austrian territory of one of the main hotbeds of the epidemic: located in the Tyrol region, the Ischgl ski resort is said to have accelerated the spread of the virus in Austria and the rest of Europe.

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The quality of Austria’s healthcare system and its citizens’ level of self-discipline have allowed the country to flatten out the curve of contaminations and to limit the number of Covid-19-related deaths. "It’s because we reacted faster and more restrictively than other nations that we now have the opportunity to emerge from this crisis more quickly." On April 6, 2020, the Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz presented Europe’s first crisis exit plan, promising the progressive transition to a "new normal".
 

Timeline

  • February 25: The two first cases of contamination are identified in Innsbruck, in the Tyrol region.
  • March 5: Iceland adds the Tyrol region to its list of risk zones, alongside China, Italy and Iran.
  • March 10: The Austrian government bans outdoor events of over 500 participants and indoor events of over 100 participants, and invites the population to limit social contacts in order to protect vulnerable groups. The local elections scheduled for the following weekend are postponed. Health checks are put in place at the border with Italy and all flights from risk zones are suspended.
  • March 11: The government announces the closure of daycares, schools and universities and suspends rail or air connections with most of the countries affected by the epidemic.
  • March 12: First death related to Covid-19 on Austrian territory. Hospital visits are banned. The Salzburg, Volarlberg and Tyrol regions announce an early end to the winter sports season (all ski resorts are set to close on March 16).
  • March 13: The government places two municipalities in Tyrol under quarantine, as these have been identified as breeding grounds for Covid-19. It also announces containment measures. Austria has less than 1,000 cases of contamination at this time; the two first Covid-19-related deaths occurred the day prior.
  • March 14: The government presents its economic rescue package, which is characterized by its relaxed conditions for access to partial unemployment, loans and public guarantees for companies and the creation of a stabilization fund endowed with €4 billion.
  • March 15: Austria adopts a national containment plan that is considered to be one of the strictest in Europe. Restaurants, non-essential stores, sports- and playgrounds are all closed. People are allowed to leave their homes for the following reasons only: essential professional activities, essential purchases, care for people in need and physical activities, alone or accompanied by people who live in the same household. Gatherings of over five people are forbidden in public spaces.
  • March 23: In connection with the possible concealment of cases in ski resorts in the Tyrol region, an investigation on suspicion of the negligent endangerment of people is opened.
  • March 24: The government announces its objective to test 15,000 people a day parallel to the containment measures.
  • March 25: The Austrian Red Cross presents its mobile application "Stopp Corona", which enables the digital tracking of contaminated persons.
  • March 30: The wearing of masks is made compulsory in supermarkets.
  • March 31: Austria crosses the threshold of 10,000 confirmed cases.
  • April 6: The Minister of Health, Rudolf Anschober, declares that Austria has managed to flatten the contamination curve. At this time, Austria has a Covid-19-related death toll of 220 people. The same day, chancellor Sebastian Kurz presents an easing of the containment measures. His exit strategy consists of a gradual reopening of shops, the restoration of economic activity and a compulsory wearing of masks in public spaces.

Analysis

Governed by an unprecedented alliance between the Conservatives and the Greens since early January 2020, Austria’s management of the health crisis reaffirms its role as a "laboratory" for the rest of Europe. After being one of the first European countries to impose strict containment measures on its population, Austria was the first state to ease measures just after Easter weekend. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz linked his political action to the religious calendar when, on April 6, he announced that "the resurrection of Austria is possible". In the Chancellor’s view, it is because Austria reacted more quickly and restrictively than other European countries that it is now able to emerge from the crisis before the rest of the continent.

Its strategy to curb the spread of the epidemic rests on three pillars: the implementation of particularly stringent containment measures, the isolation of groups and territories at risk, and perfect control over its crisis communication.

100 days after the advent of a new "green conservatism", Austria is demonstrating the efficacy of a political solution it continues to invent as it goes along. The management of the crisis by the Conservative Chancellor and his Green Minister of Health is considered an undeniable success, as well as a gamble. According to a poll published in the Standard on April 2, 43% of voters now have the intention to vote for the Austrian Conservative Party (ÖVP) at the federal level - which would win it six points compared to the last elections. As for its coalition partner, 19% of voters indicate their intention to vote for the Green Party, a figure that is equivalent to an increase of three points since the last elections. Meanwhile, the FPÖ, the country’s right-wing populist party - which was allied with the Conservatives until 2019 - attains 11% of voting intentions, its worst score in many years.

The Austrian government’s management of the crisis strengthens the image of chancellor Sebastian Kurz on the European stage and testifies to the new coalition’s ability to govern the country in an effective and coordinated manner. Its strategy to curb the spread of the epidemic rests on three pillars: the implementation of particularly stringent containment measures, the isolation of groups and territories at risk, and perfect control over its crisis communication.

The spread of the virus in Austria

The appearance of the first cases of Covid-19 on Austrian territory at the end of February is directly tied to the country’s proximity to Italy. The spread of contaminations initially follows a curve similar to that of most European countries, rising from 100 confirmed cases on March 8 to over 1,000 a week later. However, the course changes significantly from March 26 onward, when Austria diverges from the trajectory of other European countries as its curve flattens, bringing it closer to the pattern recorded in South Korea. On April 12, Austria, which has a population of just over 8.8 million, had 14,000 recorded cases of Covid-19 and 350 deaths linked to the virus; or a mortality rate close to 2.5%. By way of comparison, France had recorded 130,000 cases and 14,000 deaths on the same date, and Germany had 128,000 contaminations and 3,000 deaths, which correspond to mortality rates of 10.7% and 2.3% respectively (These mortality rates should be taken with caution, however, as they are highly dependent on the number of tests carried out).

Though the emergence of the virus on Austrian soil is undeniably linked to its direct proximity to Italy, strongly affected by the epidemic since February, the ski resorts in Austria’s south-western regions, and especially in Tyrol, also played a decisive role in the spread of Covid-19 - domestically and in the rest of Europe. As early as March 5, Icelandic health authorities alerted the Austrian government to the possible presence of a "cluster" in the Ischgl ski resort after about a hundred tourists returning from the village tested positive for coronavirus. Iceland subsequently chose to include Tyrol in its list of risk zones, alongside Wuhan, Iran and Northern Italy. In the days that followed, Germany, Norway and Denmark reported cases of contamination linked to the same resort.

Despite these warning signs, local authorities were slow to react. It was only on March 13 that the federal government placed Ischgl and other skiing locations in the Tyrol region under quarantine. In the meantime, many foreign tourists who attended festivities in Ischgl may have contributed to the spread of Covid-19 to the rest of Europe. The absence of a rapid response by the Austrian authorities was partly due to a desire to preserve the winter sports season, from which the region derives a large part of its income. Ischgl is now seen as a symbol of the dangerous nonchalance that has accelerated the spread of the epidemic in Europe, and at the end of March, the Innsbruck court opened an investigation into a possible deliberate concealment of the gravity of the situation.

As early as March 5, Icelandic health authorities alerted the Austrian government to the possible presence of a "cluster" in the Ischgl ski resort after about a hundred tourists returning from the village tested positive for coronavirus.

Rapid and restrictive measures

Since mid-March, the Austrian government’s communication has sought to present its measures as exemplary; a "model" in crisis management for the rest of Europe. The intensity of the measures imposed on the Tyrol ski resorts from March 13 onwards thus appear to be a means of erasing the authorities’ initial negligence.

At his March 13 press conference, chancellor Sebastian Kurz presented an arsenal of measures to fight the epidemic. The Paznauental and St. Anton am Arlberg municipalities - home to the ski resorts identified as Covid-19 epicenters - were placed under quarantine. Foreign tourists had to leave the territory and were obliged to place themselves under quarantine upon return to their home countries. The areas they visited were cut off from the rest of the country until at least April 26. The isolation of entire municipalities represents one of the most radical measures taken by Austria in its efforts to halt the dissemination of the virus.

From this day forward, Austria, which registered its first Covid-19-related death the day before, continued to expand its social distancing measures. When it announced a national lockdown, the particularly prohibitive nature of its containment plan surprised its fellow European states. Several days before France did, Austria announced the closure of restaurants, non-essential stores, sports- and playgrounds. People were allowed to leave their homes for the following reasons only: essential professional activities, essential purchases, care for people in need and physical activities, alone or accompanied by people who live in the same household. Gatherings of over five people were forbidden in public spaces and liable to fines.

Under a photo of Sebastian Kurz, an April 15 headline in the Bild Zeitung, one of the largest print publications in the German press, declared that "this is the chancellor we need." Inspired by countries in South-East Asia as well as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the adoption of aforementioned measures allowed the young Austrian head of state to present himself as a leader that "takes action" in the midst of a continent that "holds back". His containment plan was followed by the closure of most of the country’s borders - a decision taken unilaterally, without consulting European partners. All connections with Italy, France, Spain and Switzerland were suspended, and health checks were put in place at the Austrian-Italian border. Henceforth, only people able to present a medical certificate less than four days old could enter the territory.

Inspired by countries in South-East Asia as well as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the adoption of these measures allowed Kurz to present himself as a leader that "takes action" in the midst of a continent that "holds back".

The latter decision allowed the Chancellor to renew his rhetoric on border control, which he developed during the recent migration crises. This approach, designed to strengthen his party’s conservative profile, is not without contradictions in a country where industries are heavily dependent on foreign labor. While it prides itself on having closed its borders a few days before the rest of Europe to better protect itself, Austria has been forced to fly in workers from Eastern Europe to harvest crops and ensure the proper functioning of its healthcare system.

Toward a "new normal"

The lack of medical personnel in hospitals and retirement homes is a known problem in Austria, but the country has nonetheless been able to rely on a particularly well-prepared healthcare system in this crisis. According to a study by the OECD and the European Commission, public health expenditure totaled €3,900 per capita in 2017 - that is, €1,000 more than the European average. As a share of GDP, public health expenditure amounts to 10.4% compared to an EU average of 9.8%. Austria invests more than its neighbors in hospital treatments and has an especially high number of doctors and hospital beds. In fact, Austria is second in Europe - after Germany - in terms of the number of intensive care beds per 100,000 inhabitants (28.9 in Austria compared to 33.3 in Germany and 16.3 in France). On April 3, the Austrian Minister of Health announced that with almost 1,000 intensive care beds and 3,000 ventilators available, there was no risk of overcrowding in the country’s hospitals. As in Germany, the resilience of the healthcare system means that Austria can now accommodate French and Italian patients.

On April 6, the Minister of Health announced that the contamination curve had flattened over the two previous weeks, and chancellor Sebastian Kurz presented Europe’s first national crisis exit strategy. Small businesses, DIY and gardening stores were allowed to open again from April 14 onward. Other shops, malls and salons have been open since May 1, while hotels and restaurants should reopen mid-May. Working from home and restricted travel remained the norm until the end of April. The government also reserved the right to assess the impact of these measures over the course of April and to re-establish stricter containment measures should the epidemic resume.

This progressive revitalization of movement and activity is accompanied by measures defined by the Chancellor as the "new normal". The wearing of masks has been compulsory in Austrian supermarkets since March 30; on April 14, this obligation was extended to all stores as well as public transportation.

As in other European countries, Austria faces a shortage of masks, which has forced several industries to reorient their production lines to the manufacture of personal protection equipment. On April 4, the Conservative Minister of the Economy announced the large-scale production of "Made in Austria" masks by a consortium tasked with producing 100,000 masks a day, and called on everyone capable of sewing to contribute to this new national industry.

Alongside the compulsory wearing of masks, Austria’s exit plan relies on mass screening. The country benefits from an availability of rapid tests, produced mainly by the biotech company Procom Cure which is based in Salzburg and supplies over 100,000 tests to laboratories across the world each day. That said, the government’s desire to test "the entire population" is still hampered by the limited capacity of Austrian laboratories.

On March 24, when close to 30,000 Austrians had already been tested, the Chancellor announced his objective of testing an additional 15,000 people per day over the following weeks. The political will in this domain goes hand in hand with a practice that is considered to be a key component of Austria’s strategy: testing, which is largely managed by the Red Cross, is primarily done at the homes of people who show symptoms in order to avoid new contaminations in hospitals.

Using martial rhetoric to advocate for radical measures, Sebastian Kurz reinforces both his conservative profile and his image as a man of action, which could inspire other right-wing parties in Europe.

Austria’s "new normal" is also characterized by a resort to digital tracking, one of the pillars of the exit strategy as presented by the Chancellor. The Austrian Red Cross, which is heavily involved in the battle against the epidemic, has already launched a mobile application called "Stopp Corona" that has been downloaded by almost 200,000 users. The application, the use of which is voluntary, operates on bluetooth technology to alert users in case of contact with a contaminated person. Though the government wants all Austrians to use the "Stopp Corona" application, it refuses to make it compulsory at this stage. It is also considering distributing bluetooth bracelets to citizens who do not have smartphones. The conjoined mobilization of citizens, industrial actors and humanitarian organizations in the fight against the epidemic embodies the principle of national unity asserted by the Chancellor since the beginning of the crisis: "Wir sind das Team Österreich" (we are team Austria).

The government’s communication strategy is one of the principal success factors of Austria’s crisis management. Using martial rhetoric to advocate radical measures for the protection of citizens’ lives, chancellor Sebastian Kurz reinforces both his conservative profile and his image as a man of action, which could inspire other right-wing parties in Europe. This communication is accompanied by rational explanations of the adopted measures, which are delivered each night by the Green Minister of Health and strengthen public support for the national Covid-19 strategy. Through a combination of European leadership ambitions built on a success story presented as exemplary; careful mastery of strategic communication; and a union between Greens and Conservatives on public health in which each party’s sensitivities appear easily reconciled, the Austrian "model" is a clear reminder that any crisis management ultimately reflects a defined political agenda.
 

Copyright: ROLAND SCHLAGER / APA / AFP

 

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