COVID-19 affects us all — unequally. Lessons from Austria

By Barbara Prainsack, Bernhard Kittel, Sylvia Kritzinger, and Hajo Boomgaarden, on behalf of the Austrian Corona Panel Project, University of Vienna, Austria [contact: coronapanel2020@univie.ac.at]

Most Austrians first heard of the Novel Coronavirus some time in January, following reports of a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan. In those days, few thought it would ever affect our lives directly. Corona was a faraway problem, and we thought we would be safe if we did not travel to China.

Social housing in Vienna [image by Hadi]

Then, in the last week of February, Austria had its first confirmed COVID-19 case. The problem was coming closer to home, but officials still warned that people should “not become hysterical, and not panic”. Just over two weeks later, Corona-hotspots in the West of Austria were isolated. On 16 March, nationwide measures were put in place: Everyone was to stay at home, except for (essential) work, to shop for food, to walk or exercise, or to support those in need. Some kindergartens and schools would remain open, but only to supervise children whose parents had to work. Other parents were to teach and look after their children at home. With the exception of supermarkets, groceries, and pharmacies, all shops and restaurants were closed. And those in need of COVID-19 testing were not to go anywhere — they would be visited at home.

From today’s perspective it seems as if these strict measures may have prevented the worst: the growth of new infections in Austria has slowed down, and mortality is relatively low. Hospitals have not been pushed over their capacity. Today, on 14 April, smaller shops will re-open — but all other restrictions will remain in place. Some of the same politicians that had told Austrians not to panic are now warning us that it will take many months until we can go back to something that resembles normal life.

The Austrian Corona-Panel Project

But what is normal? How have Austrians been impacted by the Corona crisis? How does it affect different groups differently? In order to study this, we set up a panel survey right when the measures kicked in. Since the last week of March, a representative sample of 1,500 Austrians have been asked a set of questions at regular intervals: What does their work and home life look like? What has changed since the beginning of the crisis? How has their physical and mental wellbeing been affected? Where do they get their information from? Who do they trust? What is their view of the measures put in place by the government? Are they too strict, or not strict enough? Do Austrians comply with them?

Running a panel survey means that the exact same individuals are asked our questions every week. This allows us to observe how people’s experiences and attitudes change. As soon as new data comes in, we analyse it, and we put findings out on a blog (in German) targeted at the Austrian public. We make all data available to researchers who request to see it, and we will also release the data publicly once we have had a chance to strip it off anything that could compromise anonymity.

What we have found so far

So, what have we found so far? It will take us a while to get to the bottom of everything (and none of us has got a lot of sleep over these last few weeks), but these are what we consider the most important findings so far:

1. COVID-19 makes Austria more unequal. We found this effect across multiple domains of life, and across different measures. For example:

2. Austrians are news junkies. A whopping 80% tap into traditional news media at least once a day to learn about COVID-19. Those with high risk are doing this even more than those with low risk. Less than two thirds (57%) use social media for this purpose (interestingly, WhatsApp is particularly popular among high-risk groups). Only 11% of the population cannot be reached by the news media at all.

3. Austrians support the government’s measures — as long as they do not affect their privacy. An overwhelming majority of citizens support the measures taken by the government, such as closing businesses and imposing curfews. A large majority also wants rule breakers to be fined (Figure 1, in German). At the same time, Austrians are hugely sceptical of digital surveillance measures targeted at individuals. About two-thirds reject track-and-trace apps, and 59% reject the idea that the location of those tested positive will be tracked by authorities and publicly revealed. These results underline earlier findings that informational self-determination is extremely important in German speaking countries and regions.

What should be done?

These findings show that despite the government’s best effort to cushion people from some the worst impact of the COVID-19 crisis, there is still much to do. If children, large families, and single parents are hit particularly hard by the lockdown, does it make sense to open businesses and leave schools and kindergartens closed? How will those going back to work organise their childcare? And, as temperatures are rising, will those stuck in small flats without balconies “stick to the rules” and leave the house only for essential errands? And there are also further questions for researchers to explore: The longer the lockdown continues, are people likely to put privacy concerns aside if apps allow them to move around more freely? Or are they becoming more critical of government actions?

We want to end with a note of hope: Our study also found what we think is solidarity. And no, we do not agree with those who celebrate support within families or close neighbours as solidarity. People helping their family members and friends probably do it out of love and friendship; solidarity is a misnomer here. But our data suggest that there is something that deserves to be called solidarity: People who believe that their own risk to suffer from COVID-19 is low stay at home just as much as those in high-risk groups (see illustration 3).

It could be, of course, that they do so because they fear fines or other repercussions if they do not stay at home. But this alone is unlikely to explain the effect that we see. Austrians maybe staying at home to support each other. In collective isolation.

Read our next update here; an overview of all updates (with links) is below.

I'm interested in all things bioscience, medicine & society. For more on our solidarity work, see https://barbaraprainsack.wordpress.com/about/

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