The Coronation of Austria: Part 15

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]

Infection-numbers-wise, things have gotten worse in Austria since our previous update at the beginning of March. New infections are rising, particularly in the East of the country, where the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant is spreading fast. Vaccination rates are slowly increasing (from 6% to roughly 15% within the last month), and free testing is available to most people in the country (e.g. through this initiative in Vienna which gives residents access to two free PCR-tests per week). This has not, however, prevented hospitals in the East of the country from nearly reaching their capacity.

As a result, Austria has now resorted to what science journalist Elke Ziegler called “epidemic federalism”, with Western regions opening cafés and restaurants, while the East is seeing stricter rules over Easter. It remains to be seen how effective this strategy will be — also in the context of decreasing compliance with pandemic policies overall, as we will report below, together with our other new findings of the last month.

Test — but not socialise?

The efforts of authorities to provide easy and cost free testing for as many people as possible seems to be appreciated by the majority of Austrian residents. The percentage of those who consider testing an effective strategy to fight the pandemic rose from 33% to 45% between our February and March survey dates; and also the number of people who consider the tests reliable has been increasing. A majority of the Austrian population is also in favour of tests being an access requirement for events, restaurants, hotels, and services involving close physical contact. Only 15%, however, consider tests a good way to be able to socialise with friends and family; 56% do not.

This widespread caution regarding “test-and-socialise” practices is noteworthy, given that most of our respondents observe decreasing compliance with pandemic policies. With the exception of the obligation of wearing face masks in public indoor places — which a clear majority (58%) believes most others observe — when asked to assess the behaviour of other people, only 17% feel that most others are restricting their movements in compliance with pandemic policies. Assuming that what people observe in others influences their own behaviour, this finding is concerning.

Vaccine preferences

In previous updates we reported on the relatively low proportion of Austrian residents who are willing to get vaccinated. This proportion has remained stable at about 47% over the last three months. This figure, however, is to be read with caution: Unpublished data from our qualitative sister study suggests that some of the people who say they would not want to get vaccinated would just not want to take any doses away from others who may need them more urgently.

In our own survey, this past month, we have delved deeper into the question of vaccine preferences. We found that there is a pronounced preference for the BionTech/Pfizer vaccine (66% would get vaccinated “next week” if they were given it). Only 23% say the same about AstraZeneca — which is not entirely surprising given that people were surveyed in mid-March, amidst concerns about blood clotting being a side effect. Rates for Moderna, and for Johnson & Johnson, were at 52% and 46% respectively. Surprisingly, 28% said they would be ready to get vaccinated with Sputnik-V, which has not been approved for use within the EU.

Growing inequalities

Several of our previous updates have highlighted how social and economic inequalities have been increasing during the Covid-19 crisis. Although this is not a topic covered widely in public media, the proportion of people who foresee these gaps continuing to increase has risen from under a third (31%) in April 2020 to almost half (47%) in March 2021. Similarly, a wide majority (68%) expects that life will become tougher for most people in Austrian. At the same time, about half expect that their own situation will remain the same — meaning that people are overall more pessimistic about the prospects of others than their own. This finding resonates with results from our qualitative sister study where many interviewees considered themselves as privileged compared to others, irrespective of their actual income or living situation. This could be an instance of optimism bias, but also express concern for others.

…. And growing solidarity with the unemployed, and other groups

Last month we also asked our respondents how much they care about the living conditions of specific groups — and we compared our findings with data from the European Values Study in 2018. In short, overall, solidarity is not decreasing. In absolute terms, the groups whose living conditions people care most about are older people, people with illnesses or disabilities, people in their own neighbourhood and region, and in their own country (about two thirds say they care). When compared with the figures from 2018, however, we see some changes in solidarity with specific groups: Solidarity with older people (-8%) and people with illnesses and disabilities (-7%) has decreased, while solidarity with unemployed people (+4%), people in Europe (+6%), and people in the rest of the world (+9%) has increased. A possible explanation is that people who are suffering particular hardship and may not be seen as receiving enough support — such as people who lost their jobs, or people in countries that are hit hardest by the crisis — have become more visible. At the same time, the (overall still very high) concern for the elderly as well as for people with illnesses and disabilities may have dropped to a slightly lower level because in public discourse and public media, these groups are often portrayed as those that others have to “sacrifice themselves for”.

What else have we found?

Unsurprisingly, but worryingly, we found that those who perceive their own personal health and their economic situation being under serious threat are more likely to experience psychological distress. Also poor health increases psychological distress. These findings underscore the importance of political measures to mitigate and remedy the effects of the crisis that take an integrated approach across policy fields and life domains. The recent report by Sir Michael Marmot and colleagues on Building Back Fairer after the pandemic contains a number of measures that, although being developed in a UK context, could serve as models for such an approach also in other parts of the world.

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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