This is not about pointing blame or political change, but about the question of how a modern industrial country like Austria could be so surprised by a pandemic that measures had to be taken that were last applied in the Middle Ages. Austria and most other European countries were completely unprepared, although the probability of a global pandemic has moved into the realm of possibility for 18 years at the latest after the experience with SARS in 2002.
And a lot seemed to have been prepared on paper: In 2019, Austria was ranked 26th out of 195 in the Global Health Security Ranking of the respected Economist Intelligence Unit, ahead of Israel (54th place) but behind South Korea (9th place). But paper is known to be patient, and even the best of plans can collapse under the stress of a real crisis. This is why it is now important to analyze and compensate for these structural weaknesses, because another year like the last one is unlikely to be expected of the population, economically, socially or psychologically. And it is not as if there were no best-practice examples in dealing with the pandemic: no two countries are completely alike, but in many areas you can certainly learn from the successes of others. Above all in the administrative area, weaknesses have become apparent in Austria, which have nothing to do with the hard work of the domestic civil servants, but with a structure that was simply not prepared for a crisis of this magnitude.
The fact that structural reforms are urgently needed in Austria to keep the country fit for the future was not only revealed by Corona. The Austrian Convention’s proposals for fundamental state and constitutional reform have been on hold for 16 years. What began as a bipartisan zeal for reform unfortunately never got beyond the working group phase.
Perhaps it would be time to revive this process and then supplement it with concrete goals and implementation plans. There is a risk that in all the discussions about day-to-day political business and the (at least perceived) end of the pandemic, the really big question will be lost from sight: is Austria still fit for the future? Governments and ministers come and go, but our structural weaknesses remain. In terms of digitization in the education and health sector, we are lagging behind other European countries such as Estonia by light years – a state that was still a Soviet province over 30 years ago. These and other structural weaknesses are also the reason why Austria is far from the world leaders in pandemic management, and brings up the rear when it comes to openings.
While the 4th wave is raging in this country, in regions such as the US state of Florida or the corona model countries South Korea and Taiwan, for example, even during the peak of the pandemic, schools were barely or only to a limited extent closed and the coming winter is also seen more calmly there . Even if everything was not done right there, and in particular data protectionists rightly take a critical view of digital contact tracing, as has been done in many Asian countries, one thing must be noted: In an international comparison, fundamental rights and everyday freedoms were less restricted there than in Europe . In a study on the severity of lockdowns, the University of Oxford comes to the conclusion that consistent tracing and monitored quarantine measures make it possible to control the infection process even with minor restrictions.
The pandemic has also sparked a new global competition for locations, in which many companies are reorganizing their supply chains. Austria should be at the forefront here and be a magnet for company bases, but at the moment it looks like this opportunity will also be missed. At the same time, the next crises are already on the horizon: According to the World Food Program, 34 million people are at risk of famine as a consequence of the pandemic. A development that will lead to renewed migration flows, which can already be felt at the EU’s external borders.
The crisis preparation that has been carried out purely on paper in recent years will no longer be enough in the future. Workshops and simulations are needed to prepare the system for the actual conditions under crisis-related stress. For this purpose, one could, for example, think of a department for “national threat scenarios” in which worst-case scenarios from all areas (economy, health, international, digital, etc.) are permanently played through. In addition, risks would be assessed there, strategic considerations made (e.g. freedom vs. security) and preventive measures developed.
You cannot exactly predict the time of a crisis, but you can say with great certainty that Corona will not be the last. It would be desirable and actually also the duty of Austrian politicians not to be surprised again like in 2020.