From Acute Crisis to Long-Term Coping?

Further insights from the Austrian Corona Panel Project

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]

Since the last week of March, we have asked a representative sample of the Austrian public in weekly intervals about various aspects of their lives during the COVID19-crisis — covering work, income, emotional and psychological wellbeing, views on government policy and where people get their information. We publish (almost) daily analyses on our website in German, and bi-weekly summaries in English — the first of which can be found here.

The data of the first weeks of our panel survey had shown that the COVID-19 crisis had made Austria more unequal. People whose income had been low before the crisis had even less money available in the middle of April. People with lower levels of formal education had been more affected by job losses than others. And 20% of all children had to spend the lockdown in homes with very little personal space.

Our data had yielded some good news as well: We had found that those who considered their own risk to suffer from COVID-19 as very low stayed at home just as much as those who considered their risk to be high. On the basis of first insights from the Austrian sample of a multinational qualitative study we suggested that people mostly stay at home to protect others, and not because they fear fines.

Our new findings:

This high level of solidarity within the Austrian population does not, however, seem to be matched by similar levels of solidarity with other European countries: New findings from our panel survey show that a majority rejects the idea that Austria would pay higher contributions to help other EU countries through the COVID-crisis. Similarly, 40% of our respondents believe that Austria should be allowed to forbid the export of essential goods such as food, drugs, and protective equipment — while only 25% believe that other countries should be allowed to do the same.

What else have we found? Here is an overview of some of the analyses our teams carried out since the last post on 14 April:

1.Misinformation… We confronted our respondents with five pieces of misinformation, such as statements that a vaccine exists but is being held back by the pharmaceutical industry; or that the Coronavirus could be passed on through Chinese products. Less than half identified all five statements as incorrect. One in eight did not recognise one single piece of misinformation as fake.

2. … and more information: We also found that those with high levels of anxiety and nervousness consume more print and social media than others.

3. Even greater strains on women? For the majority of Austrians, life satisfaction has decreased due to the crisis. Women seem to be affected particularly badly. While before the crisis, women were happier with their lives than men on average, that relationship has now reversed. We assume that the lockdown increased the pressure on women: Housework, childcare, and other responsibilities that have primarily rested on female shoulders before the crisis are burdening women even more now. Despite this, interestingly, women report fewer issues with combining family with work than men.

4. Broken routines? Among those who live alone, young females and elderly men report higher levels of loneliness .

5. Plans and dreams gone up in smoke? Austrians smoke more during the crisis than before. And while alcohol consumption has decreased on average, unemployed people and those affected by a cut of their working hours, as well as those who feel very lonely, now drink more than they used to.

6. Divisions over Europe. Austrians are divided over the question of whether COVID-crisis management should be more centrally organised through the EU. About the same proportion of people support and reject this scenario.

7. Who should receive state support? Our respondents are equally divided over the focus of state support: Should state support focus on businesses (also to save jobs), or should the state support employees directly? Only a minority of the population (18% and 28% respectively) feel strongly either way.

8. Economic pessimism. Only one third of all households expect that their financial situation will improve over the next 12 months. One in five expect that things will deteriorate further.

9. Mind your own business. Only a minority of Austrians said they would take active steps to try to convince people of the seriousness of the situation (43%) or ask others to keep a safe distance when shopping or walking in the street (30%). 20% would convey to panic-buyers that they disapprove of their behaviour; and even fewer (18%) would notify authorities of people who do not obey the rules to contain the pandemic.

Is there crisis fatigue?

We have been asked often in recent days whether or not our data show any signs of crisis fatigue in the Austrian population.

Yes and no. Let’s start with the no. Overall, Austrians take the COVID-19 crisis very seriously; less than a third think that the risks have been exaggerated. And 70% agree with the statement that the government must be “prepared for very unlikely outcomes, even if these preparations entail high financial costs”.Younger people and males are the most sceptical. We also found that respondents who report anxiety and nervousness are more likely to support the government’s measures to contain the pandemic than others.

Satisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic is relatively consistent: About two thirds of the population approve. The proportion of those who agree with the statement “political decisions must be adhered to at all costs” also remains high (at 64% by mid April), albeit with a small downward trend during the last weeks.

Which brings us to the “yes” part of the answer about crisis fatigue. By mid April, Austrians considered the health and economic risk posed by COVID-19 lower than at the beginning of the crisis: The proportion of those who consider the public health risk high, or very high, has decreased from 60% to 33–44%, depending on the risk group. Moreover, between the end of March and mid-April (when all restrictions on movement were still in place), the proportion of people who reported never leaving their homes out of boredom or to exercise dropped from over 60% to around 50%.

It will be interesting to see how practices and attitudes change when shops and restaurants will open again in the middle of May, and hotels and public swimming pools will follow suit at the end of the month. As Austria is slowly leaving the lockdown it will be important to not lose sight of improving the situation of those hit hardest: women, healthcare workers, people who lost jobs and incomes.

More urgently than ever, we need structural and institutional changes that mitigate social and economic inequalities. In addition, the great support that the Austrian population has shown for the crisis management of its government must be transformed into a broad, open, public, and transparent debate about the ways in which the country should enter the next phase of the crisis — which is likely to be a long and straining collective effort.

Read our next update (16 May 2020) 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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