Sign on tree in park to urge people to keep up social distancing

As Austria seems to be emerging from lockdown, the question is for how long

After seven weeks of lockdown here in Austria, the easing of restrictions has begun. In mid-March the government lulled us into lockdown with talk about placing Austria into hibernate mode and gradually returning to normal operation over the course of weeks and months. A week of lockdown became a month, and then the month was extended further to the end of the calendar month. Following the first stages of relaxing of the restrictions having happened, responsibility is being transferred to the people on the street, or hopefully those still at home. All this is part of what is referred to ever more frequently as “The New Normal”.

The method for establishing “The New Normal” almost seems like some kind of a referendum, with politicians putting out increasingly nebulous statements to the population and simultaneously relaxing lockdown rules in the hope that every man, woman and child will dutifully obey the government’s requests and rules of their own accord thereby confirming its approach. But at we know, in/out debates don’t also end well, particularly where far more than a simple majority toeing the line is needed. This issue is about the entire country playing it safe. And that is where I feel it to be an unsafe gamble, whether in Austria or in the UK. From my flat and terrace, I can check up with how my friends and family are doing, thanks to the wonders of modern technology. And we are able to keep our morale up through such virtual contacts, as well as having a healthy sense of imagination. So it is safe to say that I am still firmly in the “(Staying) In” camp.

Elderly Aunt in Lincolnshire is stuck in at home, with an unloved garden her only escape. She’s far too frail to be able to any gardening, indeed the only part she can really use is the patio that we cleared up for her last summer, so she can catch a breath of North Sea air each day. Otherwise she is stuck inside at home, and doesn’t dare go outside for the weekly applause for the NHS, as she is too afraid of having a fall, as her skepticism of care homes and hospitals is such that she feels that she’ll never come out of one alive. She receives meals on wheels, and the lady who befriended her, June, keeps an eye out on her contactlessly. In a recent message to my brother, June announced that Elderly Aunt had received a government food parcel, but that much of its contents Elderly Aunt didn’t want, so she had passed it onto June. Under the current lockdown, my brother and I keep June in top-up credit for her phone, and having managed to get my aunt shopping deliveries through her GP signing her up as someone who is vulnerable, we also see that June is kept fed too.

My brother says this helps him to feel slightly less “Helpless in Hertfordshire” as the drive up to Lincolnshire it not classed as urgent enough, and he himself was the recipient of an SMS, presumed to have been in error, as the NHS considered him to be high risk. But, as he put it, it was a good way to justify being inherently antisocial for a while and clearing out a lot of the house, ready to be able to take some carloads down to the tips when they reopen, and to allow his wife to have an art and craft room in the house, with his home office having made way for that. Both he and my sister-in-law are resigned to this summer being a non-summer. Many events have been cancelled through until the early autumn, from recreational sport through to culture and crafts. I detected a slight sigh of relief from my brother in the background when the local flower show fell foul of the cuts. He’s hoping he might be able to get off the organising committee having been press-ganged into it due to being on friendly terms with the then vicar.

On Friday, I had been due to help take a friend’s father to the traditional SPÖ May Day Parade (Tag der Arbeiter). This bastion of Viennese socialism has also been pushed online, due to Coronavirus, and with it I fear that my friend’s father will never make it to another such parade, although he was able to witness the online coverage, a concession that hardline SPÖ supporters believe to have been like conceding the fight and unnecessarily providing the other parties with a chance to stake their claim to 1 May, the holiest of high days for the SPÖ. My friend has been cooped up with his father in a smallish flat since mid-March, and the fear he has about his father becoming a fatality statistic is similar to my Elderly Aunt’s fear that any trip to a care facility will hasten her demise.

Yesterday (Saturday, 2nd May) my wife went down to see her sister in the late afternoon for some supper and also to have a haircut, courtesy of my nephew’s girlfriend, who starts back at her hairdressing job on Tuesday, and is hoping for a bumper load of customers, having managed to build up a good rapport with them all, imploring them not to take matters, or make that scissors, into their own hands. My hair remains firmly in virgin lockdown state, although I hope my barber will be available for a short back and sides very soon, albeit only once all those who consider being elegantly coiffed again have stormed the salons. From the noises in the news, there is no danger that the hairdressers will not be short of work for the time being.

My nephew had a stroke of good luck, in that he was able to find a carpenter to partition up the co-working space he works at into smaller rooms – so that it will be able to operate, although there are some concerns from his boss about the altered feng shui, since this apparently had been its selling point, but to give him his due nephew has worked hard to find new features (proximity to both Westbahnhof and Hauptbahnhof, proximity to a 3D printing service and plenty of takeaway coffee and lunch facilities) to hopefully keep the place running in the heart of Boboland (or maybe even Bobostan). He had pointed out that with tourism likely to take a hit this summer, the feng shui argument might not work so well in any case or even be relevant.

I only knew that lockdown was really “over” when I noticed that my Smartphone operator was no longer advising me to “#bleibzuhause” (another network ran with “#bleibdaheim“), although it seems from my trip up Obkirchergasse yesterday to the pharmacy, that other that restricted numbers in premises at any one time, as if caution was being thrown to the wind. There was an orderly queue down the pavement to Joseph Brot vom Feinsten (this is bobo/artisan baking at prices that are more eye-watering than mouth-watering), and people were going about their business masks donned, albeit after a fashion (many not covering their noses, and many in single use masks that had definitely been in circulation for more than a single use.

The S45 at Krottenbachstrasse with a couple of dodgy fast food kiosks has a thriving beer garden (well a selection of professional drinkers spending time in each other’s company at a notional distance to one another if I must be accurate in my appraisal). And the BP filling station seems to have been a popular drinking location, given the empties perched by the Obkirchersteg. I’ll freely admit I do miss my friends, acquaintances, even some of the ne’er-do-wells that lurk on street corners, or the itinerant Stadtoriginal, all of whom provide this city with colour. But, and this a real but, I am not going to risk it all by throwing caution to the wind and go out unnecessarily to assuage my retail hunger only to come a cropper to a really nasty virus. I am lucky to date that my nearest and dearest have been spared by it, but have friends who know others who became statistics of COVID-19.

One thing is clear, people are struggling to take any more of lockdown, but at the same time are rejecting the government’s advice. They are voting towards socialising rather than social distancing. I fear this will not end well and we’ll be back in lockdown before we know it. Keep safe and where possible, stay home!

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