By Barbara Prainsack, Bernhard Kittel, Sylvia Kritzinger, and Hajo Boomgaarden, on behalf of the Austrian Corona Panel Project, University of Vienna, Austria [contact: firstname.lastname@example.org]
After various stages of “soft” and “hard” lockdowns since the beginning of November, which were only partly observed by the Austrian public, restrictions in Austria will be easing as of the 2nd week of February: Schools, shops, and even hairdressers and other service providers will reopen with specific requirements regarding physical distancing, mask-wearing, and testing.
Such easing of restrictions takes place against the backdrop of the spread of new and more infectious virus mutations that have led experts to recommend great caution. It may be, in part, a reaction to rising protests against the restrictions, and a decline in public trust in the crisis management of the federal government. Data from the Austrian Corona Panel Project (our representative panel survey of Austrian residents 14+) shows that an increasing share of Austrians consider the measures ineffective, and at the same time, too strong: in January, 36% of Austrians considered the government’s anti-Covid-19 measures too extreme. Almost the same proportion thought the measures to be appropriate, and 28% considered them too weak.
Interestingly, fewer than one in five Austrian residents (17%) believe that Covid-19 poses a great or very great danger to their personal health . The proportion of those who believe that it poses a great risk to society as a whole, however, has been on the rise over the last months. It may be that this difference between the perceived individual risk on the one hand, and the risks for society on the other, partly accounts for the decreasing willingness of people to comply with the full bundle of measures.
Another reason for the low compliance may lie in the communication strategy of the federal government. More than half of our respondents feel that the federal government is not receptive to criticism, and almost half (47%) feel that it is more concerned with its own public image than with the content of its communication. Less than a quarter feels that they receive all the information they need. Unsurprisingly, voters of the opposition parties, and in particular, voters of the Social Democrats and the Freedom Party, hold the most negative views of the federal government’s performance in this respect, while voters of the liberal NEOS, the third-largest opposition party in parliament, are more positive. Among voters of the two parties in government, Green voters are more critical than voters of the People’s Party that Chancellor Kurz belongs to.
Who should make political decisions: Politicians or experts?
Almost two thirds (64%) of our respondents would prefer it if important political decisions were made on the basis of scientific findings by independent experts and not by elected politicians. This view was common across all social groups and all political camps. Older people (65 years and older), people with a university degree, and voters of the liberal NEOS party were particularly positive about the role of scientific evidence and expertise in policy making. Younger people (30 and younger) were the most skeptical about political decisions being based on scientific findings.
What else have we found since our latest update in January?
Despite studies suggesting that trains, buses, and trams are not a hot spot for infections, when we asked our respondents where they thought the biggest risk of infection lies, most were concerned with public transportation. The risks that people consider taking when using public transportation has increased continuously since May 2020. Restaurants, workplaces, schools and kindergartens, and doctors’ offices were considered medium risk, while outdoor spaces such as parks and playgrounds were considered safest.
While we had previously reported that worryingly small numbers of Austrians are willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the proportion of those willing to do so is now increasing. In January 2021, almost half (47%) of our respondents said they would like to get their jab as soon as possible, while about one third were still skeptical or hostile to the idea. About a quarter supported a vaccination mandate for the general population, and almost half (47%) wanted like to see one for occupational groups with a high risk of infection.
In our previous update early January 2021 we had reported that, although the majority (60%) of our respondents do not feel lonely at all, in some groups, loneliness is on the rise again. Our new analyses show that overall, women feel lonely more often than men. Unsurprisingly, people living alone also reported greater loneliness. Also, young respondents feel more lonely than older respondents — which speaks to current debates on the extent to which the COVID-19 crisis disproportionally affects younger generations.
It will be interesting to see whether the negative mood in the Austrian population will change once restrictions have been eased — and whether it will be necessary to tighten them again. Stay tuned for findings from our next data collection — our next update will be out early March.