Austria: The Coronavirus Chronicles
by Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff
Week 1 in a country in complete shutdown.
Austria has been at the forefront in forcing its citizens to “shelter in place” by enacting measures so draconian that even the country’s elderly, having survived World War II, cannot remember anything similar. In order to snuff out a virus that originated in China only a few months ago and has since made its way around the world thanks to globalism, countless other countries have followed Austria’s lead. Only a week ago — it seems like eons ago! — the Austrian government, led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who heeded a dire warning by acting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, apparently deeply concerned about the critical situation (its reasons expertly explained by Guy Miliere) in its neighboring country Italy, enacted a first set of measures, followed by the previously-mentioned drastic rules. Austria’s confinement measures were recently extended until April 13.
Countries in Europe and around the world are reacting to threat of the Covid-19 in different ways. Soeren Kern has done an excellent survey here; a collection of reports from local journalists on how they are experiencing the lockdown across Europe may be found here.
And yet there are other noteworthy findings:
- Climate change, Greta Thunberg, Fridays for Future are now mostly irrelevant. Health measures clearly take precedence over kids cutting school. Nevertheless, the political Left has always been adept at never letting a crisis go to waste and using it to do things that couldn’t be done before (Rahm Emanuel). One case in point is the Austrian minister of health, a radical member of the Greens party, who is on the record for saying (threatening?): “I am looking forward to the day we have successfully weathered the Corona crisis and when we tackle the climate crisis with similar political consequence.”
- Borders matter! Europeans and Americans concerned about porous borders have been vindicated as borders on both sides of the Atlantic are closed. In addition to the imminent collapse of the Schengen open-borders system, which beginning in 1995 put an end to bothersome passport controls in an area of 26 European countries. And President Trump announced that, “We will be, by mutual consent, temporarily closing our Northern Border with Canada to non-essential traffic.”
- Sovereignty and nationalism matter. Karen Siegemund, president of the American Freedom Alliance, notes:
Notice how each country — country! — took upon itself its right to sovereign action to protect its citizens.
Italy imposed quarantines; Austria closed its borders and implemented various restrictions on gatherings and mandated closures of entertainment venues, restaurants etc. Even Germany has now closed its borders.
Borders in the context of Europe is an astounding thing, and it’s heartbreaking that it took a virus, and the deaths it’s left in its wake, rather than the years-long invasions for them to assert sovereignty, and to finally, finally, turn to protecting their citizens.
- “Europe” in the form of the European Union has been silent. The United Nations doesn’t even seem to be speaking out although, in a rational world they’d be calling for “Crimes against humanity” charges to be brought against China; further proof of the UN’s uselessness at best, and of the EU’s utter irrelevance.
It’s nations putting the health, safety and security of their people above all else that will stem the spread of this virus; it’s a nightmare that it took this pandemic to wake governments up to the primacy of their people as the core of their responsibility.
- Civil vigilance matters. A particularly worrisome trend is politicians using the crisis to increase the power of the state, a terrifying thought. Consider, for instance, the widespread lockdowns in the United States, in Europe and in Israel, which, in Austria’s case, took place after unprecedented accelerated parliamentary discussion, bound for even more debate after the return to normalcy. Consider also the British Coronavirus Bill, which “will enable the police and immigration officers to detain a person, for a limited period, who is, or may be, infectious and to take them to a suitable place to enable screening and assessment'”. The words “may be” are ominous in their broadness. Moreover, as civil liberties groups argue, some of the sweeping powers are “unprecedented, unexplained and simply unjustified”, wondering “whether relaxation of protections on mass surveillance powers could signal that the powers could be used more extensively during the pandemic. Countries including Israel and China have reportedly used phone tracking to enforce quarantine restrictions on people suspected of infection with COVID-19.” Suspected, not diagnosed! (See here for an analysis of whether phone tracking could come to the US.)
In the United States, Judge Andrew Napolitano analyzed “how the basic principle of American law, namely that rights can only be interfered with by means of due process, is being put to a severe test.” In criticizing the totalitarian impulses of the governors of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, Napolitano explains the principles of the Constitution:
“ The Contracts Clause of the Constitution prohibits the states from interfering with lawful contracts, such as leases and employment agreements. “ The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the states from interfering with life, liberty or property without a trial at which the state must prove fault. “ The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment requires just compensation when the state meaningfully interferes with an owner’s chosen lawful use of his property.
Taken together, these clauses reveal the significant protections of private property in the Constitution itself. Add to this the threat of punishment that has accompanied these decrees and the fact that they are executive decrees, not legislation, and one can see the paramount rejection of basic democratic and constitutional principles in the minds and words and deeds of those who have perpetrated them. Add to all this the protection enshrined in the First Amendment guaranteeing the right to associate and the judicially recognized right to travel — both of which are natural rights — and it is clear that these nanny state rules are unconstitutional, unlawful and unworthy of respect or compliance. Today the fear of contagion gives government cover for its assaults on freedom and poses a question the government does not want to answer: If liberty can be taken away in times of crisis, then is it really liberty; or is it just a license, via a temporary government permission slip, subject to the whims of politicians in power?
Liberty Vittert, a professor of the Practice of Data Science, wonders how much liberty and privacy will be ceded in fighting the coronavirus: “While I understand the panic, fear and need for immediate, decisive, and sometimes invasive action on the part of federal and local governments in this specific situation, we need to remember that the past informs the future. What happens when the age of coronavirus is over and we are left with some very real and scary precedents of government intervention?”
On the other hand, the legal scholar Eugene Volokh is not (yet) worried about the restrictions on civil liberties. He argues:
Vigilance is always a good idea when it comes to liberty, especially in extraordinary times; but vigilance is also a good idea when it comes to protecting our and our fellow citizens’ lives. […] I appreciate Benjamin Franklin’s line that, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”. But one might equally say that “Those who would give up essential Safety, to purchase a little temporary Liberty, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” It’s all about what’s “essential” and what’s “a little,” of course; but such tradeoffs are a necessary part of life, and here the tradeoff seems to me—though in the face of immense uncertainty, and therefore immense risk of error—to cut in favor of certain kinds of restrictions. Because they are so broad and so onerous, it seems very unlikely that people (in government or out) will want to see their massive economic and personal costs extended any longer than necessary.
However, not only the public sector is taking alarming measures to curb liberties. Amazon has discreetly eliminated a sizeable list of books from its listing citing “dubious” information or even “conspiracy theories” on the defense against or even cure of Covid-19. Who decides what is a conspiracy theory? Amazon? Where has the marketplace of ideas disappeared to? Where is the marketplace in general?
- Freedom of speech matters! In times of crisis, the search for the truth is more challenging than ever. Abundant propaganda, fake news and rumors are disseminated, even by the governments! One case in point is an Austrian private news channel (Ö24) announcing the government’s plan for a curfew from 7 pm to 7 am. Immediately, the minister of interior publicly lambasted Ö24 for its fake news. The next day, the government announced measures so strict they amount to a de facto curfew. A cow remains a cow even if it is called a sheep. Nevertheless, the Austrian government and the UK government have set up a special task forces to weed out so-called fake news and “‘defend the country’ from misinformation” with respect to anything concerned with Covid-19. How long is it then until we are told: “Listening to foreign broadcasts is a crime against the national security of our people.” (© National Socialist regime)
While there has been widespread support of the rules imposed by the Austrian government, mistakes are being made. Not only has the government infringed the right to freedom of movement and assembly, but it has also installed a “ministry of truth” in the office of the chancellor, staffed by police cadets. Andreas Unterberger, Austria’s most widely read political blogger, notes:
It is absolutely stunning that a large police unit has now started to officiate in the Chancellery, which, as George Orwell has already described, has to pursue falsehoods in the media as truth police. Gestapo anew.
The government acts as if it were in possession of the absolute truth amid a sea of lies and half-truths. On the contrary, the opposite is true: In absolutely all epochs of history, whenever a government got its hands on truth control, it has massively abused it within a very short time to gag and ban critical and oppositional voices. Once they have the power to control opinion; it is a massive temptation for those in power to use it in the self-interest of a government. The government ministers fail to realize the most important connection: the more a government carries out opinion control, the more people inevitably trust alternative sources of information, and not the government officials or those financed by the government. Because as soon as opinion control takes place, the citizens are always very quickly convinced of their mistrust — even if it is not true.
Finally, in search for the truth we should all heed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s advice: There are as many opinions as there are experts.
- Armed forces matter! Germany has mobilized its Bundeswehr to assist in maintaining public order, with German Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer reassuring Germans that “in these difficult times, the citizens can rely on their Bundeswehr.” Despite being financially starved in recent years, the Austrian armed forces were mobilized early on in the crisis to assist the ministry of foreign affairs in repatriating Austrians from abroad, provide support in logistical tasks in stocking grocery stores, and relieve police by protecting foreign embassies in Vienna, thereby proving right the rejection of the 2013 referendum to end conscription and introduce a professional army.
- Borders matter! For many years, Europeans have been told by their leaders that borders could not be closed to curb illegal migration due to the Schengen Agreement, to the detriment of security in European countries. Suddenly, with the numbers of COVID-19 deaths rising, with the spread of the virus traced across Europe, border controls, barriers and other measures were swiftly introduced, the United States following suit in closing its borders with Canada and Mexico. Strict border security helps stop the virus from spreading. In the 14th century, Polish King Casimir III knew what to do in order to save his country from the plague, which — a historical irony — had spread from China to Europe and killed countless millions of people. For the most part, Poland was spared from the plague because King Casimir isolated his country, closed borders and quarantined the border regions.
Border security is health security.
- Leadership matters. Whether the greatly differing measures taken by continental Europe or those in the United Kingdom are successful remains to be seen, but leadership in times of crisis is crucial. In the UK, it is prime minister Boris Johnson who on March 3 launched a four-step plan to combat the outbreak in the UK by focusing on herd immunity. New and tough measures, including a lockdown, were later implemented. In Austria, it is Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who exhibits tough leadership. It is too early to assess whether the government is taking the “right” steps, but remaining calm and in control are key to garnering support even among his critics. Kurz is very clever at team-building by including all members of his government as well as keeping the political opposition informed. This leads to bi-partisan support of all implemented measures. And in the United States, President Trump personally leads a daily press briefing with members of the Covid-19 task force.
President John F. Kennedy once said: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” Yes, we are currently witnessing worrying and dangerous trends. But opportunities have always been present for mankind to show its true colors. There is no doubt the same is happening now. We will prevail in combating this crisis, and we will come out better and stronger than ever.