The Coronation of Austria: Part 11

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]

Things have not exactly improved since we shared our previous update from the Austrian Corona Panel Project (ACPP), a representative panel survey of the Austrian population aged 14 and over, about a month ago: reported infection rates per 100,000 people are now among the highest in the world, and hospitals are struggling; also for this reason, the ‘lockdown light’ that had been in place since early November turned into a much stricter one by the middle of the month. While some restrictions may be lifted around 6 December 2020, and mass testing will be employed to identify and isolate positive cases, there is no hope that the end of the year will see the end of restrictions.

Against this backdrop it is noteworthy that in November, for the first time since we have been running our survey, respondents’ estimates of infection numbers were more or less on par with official infection numbers. In previous months, respondents’ estimates of infection numbers had been consistently higher than the official figures. Interestingly, both in November and in previous survey rounds, our respondents believed the number of undetected cases to be relatively high. And indeed, as a study unrelated to ours found on the basis of tests of randomly chosen Austrian residents in November, 55% of those who tested positive in the study had not been diagnosed or known to the authorities. On the basis of these data, between 2.2 to 4% of the population are believed to be infected.

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Our own respondents also found that COVID-19 testing in Austria has not been ideal. In October, 62% said that waiting times for test results were too long. At the same time, about a quarter believed that too many tests were being done. When asked whether they would get tested if someone with whom they had been in physical contact was suspected to have been infected, about half said they would. About a quarter believed this was unnecessary. Uptake and enthusiasm for the ‘Stop Corona App’ released by the Austrian Red Cross in spring remains low: Only 13% said that they were ‘currently’ using the app in October.

All for one and one for…?

No wonder, then, that vaccines against COVID-19 are so eagerly anticipated by policy makers and many others. Not by everyone, however: In May 2020, just under half of our respondents said they would be willing to get vaccinated. By October, this number had decreased (!) to about a third. Looking at who changed their minds, we found that 41% of those who were willing to get vaccinated in May were no longer willing to do so in October, while only 10% had changed their minds in the other direction. We can only speculate about the reasons for this development: People’s view of the risk that COVID-19 poses to their health seems to play a role, but also the decreasing trust in the government’s crisis management. Moreover, as our qualitative partner-study has shown, the absence of long term evidence on side effects of the new vaccines cause even people who are generally supportive of vaccination programmes to hesitate in this case. As one study participant put it, ‘Everybody is waiting for the vaccine, but nobody wants to be vaccinated.’

When it comes to flu jabs, however, the picture is different: About a third of our respondents said that they would be willing to get vaccinated this season — which is considerably more than the roughly 6% who got a flu jab in previous years. While it remains to be seen how many of those declaring a willingness to get vaccinated this year will actually do it, the free vaccination programme in Vienna has already been effective. By October, twice as many people had received their flu jab in the Austrian Capital than in the rest of the country. Moreover, factors that we found to positively influence vaccination uptake — such as higher levels of formal education, male gender, and age (older and younger people are more willing to get vaccinated than people between 30–60), play less of a role in Vienna than elsewhere in Austria.

A nuanced picture of social cohesion

Vaccination programmes are often seen as the paradigmatic case of solidarity. But how do people actually feel about, and experience, solidarity and social cohesion in the country? At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in March 2020, 62% felt that social cohesion had increased over the previous week. Since then, this extremely positive assessment has continued to decline with each wave of the survey. Currently, only 14 % perceive a further increase in social cohesion.

This result could mean a stagnation, or a decrease of perceived social cohesion. Evidence from our qualitative partner study indicates that most people still adhere to measures such as wearing face masks or keeping a physical distance to others primarily to protect others and not themselves. At the same time, however, in our own survey, over the last months, fewer and fewer respondents agreed with the statements that “we’re all giving our best to overcome the crisis’, ‘most people agree that mutual support is important’, and ‘we’re working together to protect the most vulnerable’: While roughly two thirds had agreed with these statements in spring 2020, support now lies between 24 and 41%. A reason for this nuanced and partly contradictory picture may be that social cohesion is perceived to have developed differently at different levels, from person-to-person support to solidarity between groups to institutional solidarity.

In terms of institutional solidarity, with the lockdown still ongoing, it is too early to know how the closure of many businesses in November and December 2020 will affect employees and employers. From the first lock-down in spring we know that about 30% of our survey participants lost their job or part of their income. The majority received pay-outs for short-time work arrangements negotiated between the social partners. In fact, five out of six employees who were unable to continue working during the lockdown were able to take advantage of the short-time work scheme. Satisfaction with the support they received decreased over time in all groups (also among entrepreneurs who received pay-outs from hardship funds, or loans).

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A consuming crisis

Our findings suggest that the COVID-19 crisis may change patterns of consumption in the longer term. In October, our qualitative partner study found frequent references to people who said they had lost their ‘appetite’ or ‘gusto’ to shop; that during the crisis they had realised that many things they used to buy they do not really need. Also in our own data from the Austrian Corona Panel Project we found that seven out of ten people wanted to reduce their individual consumption — and this was independent of income losses. Only one in five said that they were willing to support economic recovery through their own individual consumption.

This is a space to watch — especially in the context of the upcoming holiday season. While we do so, stay tuned for the next instalment early January!

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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