COVID-19: "How do we get through this, Mr. President?"

More+More+ ♦ Published: March 16, 2020; 21:56 ♦ (Vindobona)

Alexander Van der Bellen spoke to the "Kronen Zeitung" about an unprecedented threat: "In Austria we want to avoid a situation in hospitals where doctors have to decide who gets the oxygen, the 70-year-old or the 60-year-old."

Alexander Van der Bellen: "These restrictions and limitations of everyday life have a good reason. Please abide by them." / Picture: © / Carina Karlovits and Peter Lechner / HBF

How are we going to get through this, Mr President?

Interviews in times of a pandemic: no shaking hands, keep your distance!

Mr. President, did you ever think that during your very eventful term in office something worse than the Ibiza affair and its consequences could happen? 

It really has been extremely eventful, and we are only at the beginning of the second half. In the wake of the Ibiza crisis, many things happened for the first time in the Second Republic. There has never been a pandemic, it is new in its form. The government has announced further restrictions. The fact that inns and hotels are to close and the population is to stay at home is also fanning fear in many people.

Can you understand that?

I understand. But I think the fear becomes less when you consider the reasons for the restrictions. We have now had a development for weeks where corona infections are still increasing significantly, and relatively rapidly by international standards. We must therefore do everything we can to slow down this development.

Why is this important?

We are trying to avoid hospitals being overburdened. After all, normal operations must continue to a certain extent. And we still have the flu epidemic. If we add seriously ill coronavirus patients, it could push our system to the limit. It happened in Lombardy. In this respect, all these measures are being taken out of consideration for the most vulnerable in society, so it's not a joke. But the federal government is trying to slow the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do to stop it. That would be wishful thinking.

The great fear is that it will come to a complete standstill. Is that warranted?

We don't know exactly how the disease will progress. Dealing with this uncertainty is very difficult. For you, for me, for the population, difficult also for the government and all those who have to make decisions now. That's why it is so important to keep reminding people: "People, this is not happening arbitrarily, these restrictions and limitations of everyday life have a good reason. Please keep to that."

The crisis communication of this federal government appears sovereign, transparent and coordinated. As head of state, are you involved in this procedure?

I am in regular contact with members of the Federal Government and the crisis team; today, for example, I spoke on the telephone with the Federal Chancellor and the Minister of Health. I find it impressive how the three main people responsible - the Federal Chancellor, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Health - work and cooperate here.

The top priority now is to reduce social contacts to the nuclear family and beyond to the bare essentials. Is there not a very great danger that everyone at home will now form a group and stop looking at the others?

Yes, you are right, isolation always carries the risk of not paying attention to the neighbours. We have to find a balance here. Maintaining distance, shaking hands no longer means breaking off contact. You can also keep in touch by phone, e-mail, social media. We have completely different possibilities now than 20 or 30 years ago.

The effects of this crisis are still unforeseeable. Won't the situation arise in the hospitals where doctors have to decide who will get the oxygen now? The 70-year-old or the 60-year-old? Will this take us to ethical boundaries in medicine?

In Lombardy such situations have already occurred. In Austria we want to avoid exactly that, and in order to avoid that - I must repeat - all these drastic measures are necessary.

How are we going to get through this?

With prudence and discipline. By looking at each other. It is very important that the population helps, that we observe the rules of hygiene, reduce personal contact to a minimum and protect the older generation in particular.

When you think about the end of your term of office in 2022, will this pandemic have changed our society?

Yes. We'll have learned something new. We will see where we have made mistakes, that is inevitable in such crises, but that is also a chance to learn. Man is very adaptable, that too will become apparent. In retrospect we will also know more about the virus itself. The whole world is currently researching causes and therapies. And - last, but not least - we will see how we have dealt with it economically.

Will our economy survive this?

All areas of the economy are really affected, but the service sector is particularly acutely affected. How do companies pay their employees' salaries, how do they get by without income? There are hundreds of questions that need to be addressed. The fact that the government and parliament have decided to make four billion available to deal with the Corona crisis is very helpful.