The Coronation of Austria: Part 12

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 early November, Austria has been in lockdown - with the exception of two days at Christmas, when up to ten people from up to ten households (!) were allowed to gather. On 26 December 2020, a hard lockdown resumed. Cafes, restaurants, and all shops except those serving basic needs are closed again (Controversially, skiing slopes are exempt from the closures, and prove to be very popular.) The lockdown has been announced to remain in place until the end of January.

What have we learned from our Austrian Corona Panel survey data since our last update early December 2020?

First, the Austrian population continues to be more skeptical of vaccinations against COVID-19 than the political leadership. According to our latest survey carried out mid December, about one in three of our respondents were willing to be vaccinated, and one in six were ambivalent. More than half, however, were reserved or even decidedly negative. Important reasons for skepticism included the fear of side effects, and the idea that people’s immune systems would successfully fight the infection. It remains to be seen how people’s attitudes develop once vaccinations are rolled out in Austria — most Austrians are still waiting for their vaccines (and vaccination plans) to arrive.

Many Austrians also seem to be hesitant of large-scale antibody testing as a way out of the crisis. Mid December, when mass testing was available in many places throughout the country, 59% of those who said they would not participate worried about getting infected at the testing site (and even 15% of those who said they would get tested, or that they already had, were worried about this). Many were also concerned about the effectiveness and reliability of the test. And about one in five said that they “could not afford” to quarantine following a positive test result. This may explain the relatively low uptake of antibody testing; about two million of Austria’s 8.9 million residents participated in the free testing options available in December — far less than the 60% that the government had aimed for.

Despite this, when asked mid December what measures they wanted to see in place for the upcoming Christmas holidays, six in ten supported the easing of restrictions on visits to care homes. Almost half wanted an easing of all contact restrictions over the holiday. Support for bans of large events, restrictions on travel, and mandatory face mask use in public places, however, remained very high.

As noted, the government’s decision to allow skiing slopes to remain open even during a hard lockdown attracted a lot of criticism from within Austria and abroad. Together with the easing of restrictions of physical contacts over the Christmas holidays, some predicted a spike in new infections after the holidays. Our Austrian Corona Panel Project team explored people’s views on who should be given a bed in an intensive care unit when these would become scare. A wide majority said that priority should be given to people who are severely ill, as well as to healthcare workers, and people with caring responsibilities. Preferential treatment of people who pay higher taxes, or who pay more into the public healthcare system, as well as the prioritisation of younger people, or those holding Austrian citizenship, were opposed by the majority — as was the prioritisation of people with private health insurance.

It is unclear whether many people’s yearning to see family and friends over the holidays was merely anchored in tradition, or also related to increasing feelings of loneliness. While the majority (60%) of our respondents reported not to feel lonely at all, in some groups, loneliness is on the rise again. After loneliness had declined following the first lockdown in spring 2020 and continued to fall over the summer, this trend has reversed since October. By mid December, about one in ten felt lonely (almost) every day. As previous analyses had shown, unemployed people and students were more likely to feel lonely, while retired people were less prone to it. Also on the basis of data from our qualitative sister study we believe that the experience of loneliness is related to the disruption of routines.

In the early stages of the pandemic, about one-third of respondents said they sometimes forgot what day of the week it was. Over time, and as pandemic containment measures were relaxed, this occurred less frequently. Interestingly, we found no difference between people working from home and those going to the office. But we did find that students, unemployed people, and people in short-time work were particularly affected by this phenomenon.

These findings also underscore, once more, the need for a nuanced analysis of how the crisis affects different people in the country differently that goes beyond national averages, as well as targeted measures.

On other news,

support for democracy as the best form of government has remained relatively stable throughout the crisis. Trust in institutions, such as the federal government and also the national parliament, has decreased slightly, with trust in the government having declined more sharply than trust in democracy (see also here). Support for antidemocratic positions, such as the view that we need a strong leader who does not care about the parliament and about elections, has remained consistently low at about 14% (and has, in fact, decreased by 9% since 2017).

Over the summer and the beginning of autumn, people’s willingness to adjust their own way of life to help curb the crisis had been continuously decreasing — from roughly two thirds in March to 43% in October. In November 2020, however, coinciding with the announcement of the new lockdown, the proportion of those willing to adjust their own lifestyle went up to 53% again. This positive correlation of people’s readiness to accept restrictions with the severity of restrictions imposed by authorities could mean that one influences the other — or that both are caused by rising infection numbers.

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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