The Coronation of Austria, Part 4

Our new findings from the Corona Panel Survey

Barbara Prainsack, Bernhard Kittel, Sylvia Kritzinger, and Hajo Boomgaarden, University of Vienna, Austria [contact:]

Roughly a month after the end of the most severe restrictions, many aspects of public and economic life in Austria have resumed. Cafes, restaurants, and shops have reopened, and if it were not for people wearing face masks, just by looking at the bustling streets, one could forget that COVID-19 has ever happened. The infection rate is low, and measures will be loosened further in mid June, in particular regarding the obligation to wear face masks in many places, as well as cross-border travel. In much of the public discourse, economic recovery is now pitched against the protection of public health.

New findings from our representative Corona Panel Survey show that some trends continue: Those with fewer economic and social resources, as well as women in general, continue to shoulder most of the burdens of the crisis. As pointed out in our last update, many people recognise these injustices and call for a more equitable distribution of burdens and benefits (e.g. in the form of new wealth taxes). At the same time, support for the government remains high. A considerable proportion of Austrians go so far in their support for the government that they believe that criticism and control of their political leadership should be culled.

Here are the specifics of our new findings since our last update:

Support for government is going strong…

The so-called rally-around-the-flag-effect means that political leaders often experience high levels of support during crises — often also from people who did not vote for them. This effect is clearly present in Austria : Although approval rates for the government have been declining since the end of March (from 70% to 45%), support is still considerably higher than it was before the crisis (it was at 30% just before the crisis, in January 2020). Scepticism of the government — a coalition of the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Green Party — is strongest among the voters of the two large opposition parties, namely the Social Democratic Party and the right-wing Freedom Party.

This relatively high support for government is paired among many with the view that government should be shielded from criticism and control: In mid April, when the lockdown measures were still in place, 45% of all Austrians believed that opposition parties should hold back with criticism of the federal government. Only 24% disagreed with this stance. Interestingly, we did not find that voters of opposition parties opposed this view while voters of government parties supported it: Supporters and opposers of this stance were found within all parties. The same holds true regarding the question of whether parliament should give the federal government more freedom in times of crisis: Voters of the Green Party, which is part of the coalition government, were as critical of this stance as voters of opposition parties. But half of the voters of the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) believed that the federal government should face less control from parliament during the crisis.

The belief that the government needs special support during the crisis was reflected also in people’s view of the role of the media. When asked what role journalism should fulfil, 82% of our respondents considered it “extremely” or “very” important that journalists call out and correct fake news about Corona. Almost just as many thought that journalists should foster compliance with government measures to contain the pandemic. The role that was considered least important was critical scrutiny of the government’s crisis management.

…while the health risks are now thought to be declining

Austrians now see the public health risks posed by the Coronavirus, as well as the danger that the virus poses to their individual health, as much lower than before. Those who still consider these risks to be high leave their home less often than those who believe these risks to be lower. Also solidarity still seems to remain high: How often people leave their house continues to be independent of how high they consider their personal risk to be. This could suggest that they seek to protect others, and not themselves, by adhering to protective measures. In terms of compliance with the pandemic containment measures, respondents now consider their own adherence to the rules, as well as the compliance of others, to be lower than at earlier stages of the crisis. Men and younger people report the lowest levels of compliance with containment measures (note that young men in particular have been more likely to believe the COVID-19 risks to be exaggerated from the start).

Overall, a majority of Austrians are expecting the future to be grim: 62% assume that living conditions in Austria will deteriorate in the coming years. Women, elderly people, and people with little formal education expect the future to be particularly grim, and three quarters of Austrians say they have actively avoided the news because they found them too burdensome. In this context it seems surprising that only 25% or our respondents believed that their own personal living conditions will deteriorate in the coming years — which could suggest that the overall atmosphere in the country is darker than people’s experience of their own situation. People could also be worrying about those who have it worse than they do.

With regard to the quality of sleep during the crisis, we found that more than two-thirds of Austrians (64%) have been sleeping well. But the lonelier people feel, the worse they sleep. Also unemployed people and those who do not work outside of the house — such as retired people or homemakers — sleep less well than others. Moreover, the greater someone perceives the risks posed by the COVID-19 crisis to be, the worse they sleep.

In terms of quality of couple relationships, the lockdown has had diverse effects: 17% report that their relationship has improved, and 8% say it has deteriorated since the beginning of the crisis. Younger couples are more likely to have seen their romantic relationships improved, while those affected by income or job losses are more likely to have seen it deteriorate.

Relationship troubles are often related also to challenges with squaring housework and childcare: Parents of children between 6–14 spend two hours per day with home schooling on average — with most mothers spending more time on this than fathers. While about half of all families report that home schooling is working reasonably well, single mothers and parents with lower levels of formal education face greater difficulties.

In sum, while support for the government has been declining, it is overall still very high. And while solidarity within Austria seems to remain high as well, Austrians are less willing to contribute to the mitigation of the crisis in other parts of Europe. When asked for their views about various scenarios of European-wide crisis support, not one scenario found wide support among our respondents, with the idea of a general increase in member state’s contributions to the EU and common debt mechanisms at the bottom of the popularity scale. A joint credit fund, and voluntary in-kind donations, were more popular. Although a large proportion of people were undecided, these findings also indicate an increasing polarisation amongst Austrian citizens on European issues.

Here is our next update on how the COVID-19 crisis affects the Austrian population, added mid June. An overview of all updates (with links) is below.

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