Postcard From Austria

26 November 2021

by Mark Foord

Austria Covid lockdown: Police conduct random vaccine status checks

A former colleague from Bonn insisted that “the Balkans begin in Austria”. She was hinting that for Germans, there was a slight whiff of the disorderly east about the place – too many rakish non-conformists and shady deals. I felt at home in that Austria. However, there is another Austria – a neuralgic, curtain twitching, obsessively orderly, dyspeptic place, obsequious and worshipping of authority.  

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve observed both Austrias: the Austria of stubborn transgression with the barn parties, impromptu gatherings around a crate of beer and a refusal not to enjoy life; and the other Austria of pandemic narks, tipping off the police about a game of farmyard horseshoes, or youths in the park doing what youths do. Beyond the caricatures, the situation is getting sinister. For months, the population have been saturated with angst filled news broadcasts claiming that the Austrian health system (one of the best resourced in the world) was on the verge of collapse. The press called for deeper and more stringent measures against the unvaccinated. A ‘new enemy within’ that might divert attention from the manifold failings of the Austrian political establishment to better prepare the health and social care system for winter.

The pandemic was reframed (against all evidence) as a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’. How that phrase flew. In the space of a few weeks there was a palpable mood change. Newspaper comment sections were stuffed with hateful diatribes about the unvaccinated; TV programmes made little attempt to understand the reasons why many people were reluctant to consider the new novel vaccines, despite their being evidence that many of the unvaccinated would be willing to accept one of the conventional vaccines in development (Novavax) or those already in use across the world (Sinovac). There was little objective coverage of emerging vaccine breakthroughs which might lead us to question whether vaccines remain the only way out of the pandemic. In this simple public morality tale, the unvaccinated were portrayed as the only barrier to taming the pandemic. Pressure grew for compulsory vaccination and on November 19th the Chancellor announced that Austria would become the first European state to introduce compulsory vaccinations, coming into force on February 1st 2022.

To understand how Austria arrived at this terminus, we need to comprehend the role played by the domestic vaccine passport and how it will (I suspect) have an afterlife from February 2022 policing vaccine compliance. Austria (alongside Denmark) was the first European country to implement a Covid pass when the country emerged from nearly six months of lockdown. Alongside the continuing FFP2 mask mandate, and continuous, widespread testing, including in schools, the pass was sold as a means of preventing a return to lockdown. ‘Der Grüner Pass’ codified the ‘3Gs’: Vaccinated (Geimpft) with a European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved vaccine, excluding many eastern European workers who had received Sinopharm, Sinovac or Sputnik; Recovered (Genesen), verifiable through a positive PCR result no older than six months or an antibody certificate renewable quarterly; and finally, Tested (Getestet). The alliterative 3Gs became a constant feature of daily life covering hotels, cafes, restaurants, cultural and sporting venues, health centres, outdoor swimming pools, churches, choir practice rooms, adult education colleges – nowhere escaped the admonishing 3Gs sticker. Sadly, the Covid pass has not provided the promised gentle climb out of the pandemic. As I write, Austria has around 13,000 daily cases and a seven day incidence rate of 1,000 per 100,000 people.

Throughout the early autumn, senior politicians raised the social temperature by delivering ever more troubling messages. A procession of ‘emergency meetings’ followed by sombre late night press conferences prepared the population for tightened Covid pass regulations. The autocratic Health Minister Wolfgang Muckstein (a medical doctor) announced that once a threshold of 600 intensive care patients had been reached, there would be a “lockdown for the unvaccinated”. ‘They’ would only be allowed to leave their accommodation in exceptional circumstances. This might include a short walk (maintaining a disease defeating distance from passers-by), trips to the supermarket, chemist or work. There has been political musing around the possibility of banning the unvaccinated from the houses of the recovered/vaccinated, forcing ‘them’ to wear masks in all public spaces, declaring non-essential shops off limits and even preventing the use of long distance public transport.

In the interim to the proposed lockdown, the Covid pass broadened its reach into further areas of life and from November 1st it was extended to every workplace. All employees would have to be vaccinated, recovered or tested in order to work. After a bedding in period of two weeks, only PCR tests would be admissible, meaning many workers would be required to test on Saturday for work on Monday. Unsurprisingly, the PCR system quickly ground to a standstill. Many results did not arrive in time for work or disappeared completely forcing people to miss work or risk a heavy fine. The permanent revolution continued on November 5th when it was announced that the Covid pass was being amended so that only the vaccinated or those in possession of a positive PCR test result between one month and six months old would retain a valid pass, downgrading access to 2Gs. The tested category and the antibody certificate were abruptly ended. The un-vaccinated/un-recovered (perhaps holding a negative 72 hour PCR result for employment and even retaining Covid antibodies) are now banned from accessing cafes, restaurants, leisure sites, sports facilities, ‘body-related services’ (hairdressers, pedicure salons), and so forth.

Participation in events of up to 25 people remained possible (such as church services and funerals) but only with a PCR test. Parents without a pass are no longer able to accompany their children to a swimming pool or social event. The Covid pass is valid for 270 days and then the vaccinated must receive a booster to retain their ‘freedoms’. Higher education institutions are also discussing moving to the 2G model, placing significant pressure on young people. Klagenfurt University adopted the 2G model with immediate effect for students and has given staff a vaccination ultimatum. The evolution of the Covid pass cannot be disentangled from the choice of non-pharmaceutical measures selected to address the pandemic, particularly the high level of testing in schools. There are no admission/testing rules for children aged five years-old and under, but children aged six years-old and over are tested three times a week at school and receive a so called ‘Ninja Pass’ which is accepted as proof of entry outside school. For children aged 12-15 years-old, a 2.5G rule applies (vaccinated, recovered, PCR tested). Hence school tests are valid during the week, but not throughout the weekend. After the end of compulsory schooling (approximately 15 years-old), the same regulations apply to adolescents as adults.  

During the course of writing this article, the pace of measures quickened. The Green-Conservative coalition implemented the planned lockdown for the unvaccinated. The Covid pass became necessary to enter shops, leisure facilities and cafes. Squads of police officers patrolled towns and cities checking whether passers-by and shoppers had valid papers; imposing fines on the unvaccinated not having good reason for being in public places.

So, on November 19th it was announced that compulsory vaccination would be introduced from February 1st 2022, and an immediate third nationwide lockdown would be imposed for all. The details are gradually being revealed, but the Government announced fines will be levied of up to 3,600 euros or four weeks imprisonment for not receiving an EMA validated vaccine by February 1st, and fines of up to 1,450 euros or four weeks of imprisonment for missing a booster. Despite admitting that lockdowns for the unvaccinated and the 2Gs regime have had no impact on case numbers, the Government intends to maintain the lockdown of the unvaccinated until compulsory vaccinations begin in 2022.

Many unanswered questions remain about daily life under the Covid pass, but also broader social and political issues: are passes a valid alternative to lockdown? In Austria they appear to have facilitated a new lockdown. How much democratic accountability underpins the Covid pass? There has been no substantive public debate addressing the broader goals of the Covid pass, such as whether it can contribute to preventing hospital overload, lower infection risk or increase vaccination rates; it has no publicly shared ‘sunset clause’. A discussion of the many human rights issues raised by the last 20 months has been starkly absent. What are the longer term psychosocial effects of its totalising coverage, particularly for children and young people? What might be the impact on minority groups or social inequality? What about the life chances of 12-to-18 year-olds who may not agree with the vaccination commission’s recommendation regarding the risk ratio of vaccines and decide to remain unvaccinated? Should they be excluded from all social activities into an indefinite future? Many questions, few answers.

This is a fast unfolding story. As case numbers have grown, the Austrian state has gone further and deeper than any other European country in allowing ethical fire walls to go up in smoke. Sadly, other countries have begun to copy this totalitarian path. Many people in Austria have been deeply traumatised by the pandemic, but also by the response of the state. The Covid pass has surely contributed to diminished wellbeing and growing social division. The debate is completely binary: the population is divided between ‘good Austrians’ who can be rewarded with their ‘freedom’ and ‘bad Austrians’ that require control, shaming, scapegoating. There has been little spoken about when and how the vaccine passport will end. The Austrian Covid pass is developing into a brutal mode of bio-governance, which turns rights into contingent privileges which can be enhanced or removed at will. The lockdown of the unvaccinated will continue, and with compulsory vaccination on the near horizon I presume it will continue to play a central role in policing the unvaccinated for some time to come. 

As Toby Green and Thomas Fazi point out in their excellent article outlining the failure of the left to critique the catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic, this will have “disastrous consequences”. In Austria the only organised opposition has come from the far right Freedom Party (FPO). The political left (to which I belong) have been utterly silent. Once the governing party dispense with their Green partners of convenience we will not have long to wait for those disastrous consequences. The FPO, fortified by many disenfranchised and frightened voters, will likely become a major stakeholder in the next election, shifting Austrian politics even further to the right. A disaster for the left and progressive politics that goes much deeper than the pandemic.

Mark Frood is a former academic.