Criticism shifts from Sweden to Austria as exits from lockdowns begin
As Austria prepares to implement a phased withdrawal from its COVID-19 lockdown next Tuesday, and Sweden continues with the laxest lockdown in Europe, others look on in envy, fear, and not a little loathing
And they're off. The race to get back to normality has begun. After Sweden decided to play by its own rules in adopting a "lockdown" policy that allowed the kids to keep going to school and the adults to keep partying in the pubs, Austria became the first European country to set out a clearly articulated plan to exit from lockdown altogether.
On Tuesday next week, right after the Easter weekend holidays, small stores, hardware outlets, and garden centres will lead the way. All other stores are to re-open on May 1. Bars, restaurants, and schools will probably re-open in mid-May, and sporting events and concerts could resume by the end of June. Meanwhile, face-masks on public transport will become compulsory, and social distancing rules remain in place.
Austria is already attracting criticism. An article in Politico, called the country "smug". "Now is not the time to relax measures," World Health Organization regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, told a news conference last week in reference to Austria's move, and growing calls across the continent to bring the restrictions to a gradual end.
If the chorus of scathing criticism against Sweden is anything to go by, Austrians should prepare for a tidal wave of recrimination and finger pointing.
There are wide variations in the extent to which different countries have been affected by the virus. But at 86, Sweden's death rate per million from COVID-19 remains well below many countries in Europe that have enforced much tighter lockdowns.
Neighbouring Denmark and Norway, with death rates per million at 43 and 21 respectively, also look likely to move closer to Sweden's laxer policies. Both have announced plans to re-open schools later this month, though other northern European countries such as the Netherlands are staying put for now. The Dutch death rate per million is 147.
Everywhere, with people tired and frustrated by the interruptions to daily life, and the Swedish example causing nagging suspicions that extremely tight lockdowns may not have been necessary, the public discussion, if not public policy in most cases, has turned to how quickly the restrictions can be eased.
Austria says that while the unwinding of restrictions will be kept under constant review, it feels confident in its move because it acted more quickly than many in containing the spread of the virus.
New daily cases peaked in Austria on March 26 at 1,321. With upticks on the way, they have trended downwards ever since. On Friday, the number of new cases stood at 316.
The daily death figures, which significantly lag the daily new case load due to the lead time between contracting the virus and dying from it, peaked on Wednesday last week at 30.
Overall, Austria has not been as badly affected by COVID-19 as many other European countries. At the time of writing, its death rate per million inhabitants was 35.
Italy, which borders Austria to the south, has seen 312 deaths per million. Germany, which borders Austria to the north, has a death rate very similar to Austria, at 33 per million, though Angela Merkel has so far held firm against announcing any plans to relax restrictions. Switzerland, another country bordering Austria has a death rate per million of 116. The Czech Republic, yet another country bordering Austria, and which has also begun relaxing restrictions, has a death rate per million of just 11.
The UK's death rate per million is 132. In the United States it is 57 but rising fast, and in New York state it is 400. (To see comparative death rates across Europe and the wider world, click here.)
Despite moves to end the lockdown domestically, neither Austria nor any other country contemplating an exit strategy has yet said what it will do about its borders. This suggests it could still be a long time before international travel resumes.
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