The Austrian Response to the CoViD19 crisis viewed through the Cultural Detective Austria Values Lens, authored by Nayantara Ghosh and Elisabeth Weingraber-Pircher, co-authors of Cultural Detective Austria, and Sinan Ersek.
The need to deal with the CoViD19 induced uncertainty, the feeling of no longer being in control or being able to reliably predict the future, has prompted new behaviors and drastic change in Austria, much like anywhere else. Not surprisingly, in many ways the response was in line with Austrian cultural values.
Regarding the political reaction to the pandemic, restrictions came early and were extremely rigorous. Similarly, after World War II when all political parties joined forces to work together towards a common goal—a free Austria—in this crisis we can see the same measures taken to reach desired health standards. The ambivalence toward authority seemed temporarily suspended. The public would not have cooperated and accepted the strict measures had it not seen the worrisome pictures and concerning data from neighboring Northern Italy. Not all of Austria was initially concerned by the critical situation in Northern Italy, however. In the beginning, Ischgl, a well-known Tyrolean ski resort, ignored the mounting evidence and kept its slopes open, only to become one of the epicenters for the spread of the virus within Europe. The so-called “Ischgl Gate” however, made it clear to the rest of Austria what exponential growth looks like and aided adherence to the government’s lockdown rules. In comparison, the capital of Vienna, with around two million inhabitants, accounted only for roughly 2.300 (officially) infected cases—proof of a strong West-East gradient.
It appears the rather Austrian “The Hammer and the Dance” approach has worked again. The chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, very quickly and unmistakably stated, “Soon each one of us will know of someone who died from the virus.” Austrians accepted and understood this martial warning. Within that framework of rules, people soon started to waltz again, finding creative ways to enjoy themselves and party true to “A Gaudi muss sein” … it has to be fun! The morbid Austrian sense of humor also raised its head, when the funeral museum’s facemasks with “Aushuastverhüterli” (“cough condoms”) written on them became a bestseller. Making fun of death is very Austrian.
Kurz united the majority of Austrians with the intention of protecting everyone’s health and economic stability. Concrete information, sometimes negative, has been communicated in a crystal clear and honest way. Informing the public via daily press-conferences about processes, expectations, and consequences including back-up plans outlining what will happen if plans should not develop as expected.
The general public was never under the impression that they had not been sufficiently informed. This culture of honesty and trust enabled everyone to think, talk, share, and make informed decisions. The acceptance of authority (in this case of a young and charismatic Sebastian Kurz) enveloped varieties of interaction. No anti-lockdown protests occurred like in some other countries. Even those who did not vote Kurz accepted his leadership.
From a medical point of view, Austria has different prerequisites than neighboring Italy or Spain. Over the past 40 years considerable investments has gone into the health care system. It could very well be the trust in this system that is the reason for the notorious Austrian “Alt aber Gut” (Old but Good). Even if Austrians love to whine and complain, deep down they trust in the established institutions and know that all will be fine and that the system will back them up.
“Alles für meine Leute” (All for my tribe) came through again. The Austrian public TV and radio quickly changed programming to allow artists, who had lost all their income from their concerts, a platform to perform and entertain those stuck at home. As always in times of crisis the platform of volunteers called “Team Österreicher” established in 2007 sprang into action right away in their local areas. The military was stocking goods in supermarkets to reassure the general public that there would be no food shortages and to promote the slogan of “we are all in this together.”
It might be worthwhile to mention that the patience and acceptance rate of the public may be also explained by the spatial and geographical structure of the country. Austria is still a largely rural country. Even in Vienna, the only largely metropolitan city, numerous green spaces prevail including parks, surrounding woods, and fields along the Danube. The lockdown measure never touched upon the value “Natur pur” as at all times Austrians were allowed to go for their much-loved walks, hikes, and to enjoy nature within their family units. The fact that less traffic and travel meant clear skies and fresh air was widely appreciated and aided the general positive feeling towards the measures taken.
Now that Austria is relaxing its lockdown measures, it will be interesting to see in what ways the “reflection time at home” will show up in cultural norms and behaviors. But let’s make this the content of future blog posts.
Hopefully this collaborative article will provide some interesting perspectives into Austrian values and therefore be a contradiction of the Austrian proverb: “Viele Köche verderben den Brei” (Many cooks will spoil the porridge). If you want to deep dive on some of the values or events mentioned here please consult the CD Austria Values Lens by subscribing to Cultural Detective Online, and/or contact the authors.