The Coronation of Austria, Part 5: Time for a syndemic perspective?
The Austrian Corona Panel Study has now been running for over twelve weeks, and we have analysed data from ten consecutive survey waves. To better contextualise the trends that we see emerging, Markus Pollak, Nikolaus Kowarz, and Julia Partheymüller have created a comprehensive timeline of policy measures in connection with COVID-19 in Austria that is available both in German and English — and that we hope will be helpful also to those who are doing comparative work on policy responses.
As noted in previous blog posts, increasing inequalities are perhaps the most striking finding that we have observed during the crisis so far. Clare Bambra and colleagues recently used the term “syndemic pandemic”* to refer to the fact that people with worse health status are more strongly affected by the crisis; that comorbidities and social factors interact to increase the COVID-19 disease burden of those who are already disadvantaged, which in turn negatively affects their social and economic conditions. We believe that the concept of a syndemic is instructive also for our understanding of the wider political and economic effects of the crisis: Our Austrian data show that those with lower levels of education, smaller flats, less income, and more precarious employment before the crisis have been affected more strongly by income and job losses, conflicts within the family, anxiety, and other effects that, in turn, are likely to negatively affect their health and their economic opportunities in the future.
Another striking finding has been the strong support for government policies in Austria, which in some sectors of the population goes so far that people would like to see less parliamentary control for the government and less critique from opposition parties. Our latest findings continue to corroborate this trend: About two thirds of Austrians believe that the government’s pandemic containment measures are effective. We also found that people’s approval of specific measures pretty much corresponds with government policy: Once a specific measure is abolished, people’s assessment of utility of the measure drops as well.
What else have we found since our last update?
Vaccination is an area where political and social divisions become visible that cut across traditional political camps and ideologies. Trust in authorities, religious beliefs, as well as practical issues such as time constraints and logistical barriers all have bearing on vaccination uptake. Contrary to the common belief that vaccination hesitancy is particularly prevalent among those with less education and means, in many countries, those with higher incomes are actually more sceptical. Also in Austria, where the proportion of vaccination skeptics is relatively high, this group includes a large number of people in higher education and income strata.
Researchers around the world are working feverishly to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, and some have now entered into the trial stage. If such a vaccine was available, how would the Austrian population react? Would they rush to get vaccinated, and would they want vaccination to be mandatory to increase group immunity?
Our survey found that almost half (48%) would get vaccinated as soon as possible if a vaccine was available, 34% said they would not. When asked whether a vaccination against the Coronavirus should be mandatory, the proportions reversed; 45% opposed this idea, while only 37% were in favour. Older people, and men, are more likely to get vaccinated than younger people and women — and they are also more likely to support compulsory vaccination policies. In terms of party affiliations, supporters of the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) are most skeptical of vaccinations in this context.
If consumer confidence is an indicator for economic activity, then our data give reasons for hope: At the beginning of the crisis in March 2020, only 7% of Austrians thought it was a good time to make larger investments such as buying a refrigerator, a stove, or a television set. At the end of May, over 20% thought that it was now a good time. Unsurprisingly, unemployed and self-employed people, and those whose working hours were reduced due to the crisis (“Kurzarbeit”), were more pessimistic than others.
Although religion has become less important to most Austrians during the crisis, we found that religious people (measured according to how frequently people pray, and how important they say religion is for them) were more likely to actively look for social support. Religious people were also more satisfied with their lives than non-religious people on average. Religious people also seem to feel a stronger moral obligation to support those who are affected by the crisis due to no fault of their own; but they are less likely to support the introduction of a Universal Basic Income.
Contrary to suggestions that social media use increases loneliness, we found that lonely people have used less social media than others during the crisis.
While the importance of work and religion has decreased during the crisis, many people now attribute higher value to their relationships to their family, partners, friends, and relatives. Satisfaction with their relationships with partners and with their family life has decreased slightly since 2016, however.
In sum, we do see evidence for a ‘syndemic’ in the sense that poor health and lower socio-economic status seem to interact to yield new emerging properties that exacerbate existing inequalities. Not only does this call into question current strategies to pitch economic recovery against public health concerns in Austria; these two goals are not a zero sum game. As we see in countries that now experience a 2nd wave of COVID-19, the economic effects of that are catastrophic, and the greatest burden is borne by those that are already the worst off. But a syndemic view also underscores the importance of political responses that focus on improving social and economic conditions in a sustainable manner, rather than focusing solely on short-term crisis mitigation.
Read our 6th update (5 July 2020) here; an overview of all updates (with links) is below.
Part 10: The Coronation of Austria: Part 10
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*As Bambra and colleagues note, the term was initially coined by Merrill Singer in the context of the HIV crisis.