Lockdown diary, day 8

Here we are again. Another Monday. A cold one – the sun was out but a bitterly cold wind made it unappealing to stay outside for longer than was utterly necessary. Because at the moment everything we think is filtered through a coronavirus haze, all I thought was “well, this should be good for making sure that people stay indoors”.

The actual daily routine is pretty uninteresting – older kid reluctantly does some schoolwork and watches hours of Netflix and plays hours of Animal Crossing, younger kid goes to nursery where he’s usually the only kid there (we have tried and it is simply not possible for T to do her still-compulsory university teaching with a highly demanding toddler in the apartment, especially given that she has to teach for several hours at a time), I do some work and talk to colleagues who appear on my computer screen. Maybe I’ll worry a bit about the building’s rubbish bin getting overfilled again due to everyone being at home, as last week the city rubbish collection people left a bunch of bags behind because the bin was overfilled meaning that it was 25% full before the week even started. It’s an exciting life. About the most exciting thing to happen to day was when the police pulled over an elderly person with sirens wailing, I think for driving the wrong way up a one-way street (very easy to do in the maze that is Gersthof). After they had been issued with (and paid) a small on the spot fine they started the car in reverse gear and it immediately shot straight back out into the junction where they revved a lot before they finally getting it to go forward again. Fortunately the cop had already left at this point.

I may have sounded as if I was complaining about the rubbish collectors above. I’m not – they’re working at a tough job for bad pay (but they’re city employees so at least get the benefits of being public sector workers) at a time when all the essential services are under strain. Just another of the everyday heroes who people are starting to notice a little more at the moment – working to keep the city clean is a key part of controlling the spread of infection. Groups of volunteers at the city electricity supplier Wien Energie have moved into power stations for the next weeks, leaving their families and homes behind to live, sleep and work in an isolation area to make sure the lights stay on.

Technical and operational staff at national broadcaster ORF are doing the same thing and isolating themselves to keep the central technical and distribution areas operational, and so are a number of journalists. It’s been extremely fashionable to dump on public service broadcasters as pointless, unnecessary, obsolete and so on – but it’s at times like this that we really understand how important that “public service” part is. The ratings for ORF’s main news bulletins have been absolutely through the roof for the last couple of weeks, as people discover anew that Facebook and Twitter are a terrible place to find accurate information about what’s really going on. ORF, the BBC and so on have their problems for sure, but in times of crisis you’re certainly not going to find objective, accurate coverage of the ongoing situation on fucking Netflix.

Yesterday’s top 10 programmes on ORF. The 19:30 bulletin “Zeit im Bild” and the regional news before it are being watched by a quarter of the population.

There are thousands of unseen heroes in our societies who work with dedication and passion to report and broadcast the news with accuracy and impartiality, who keep the lights on and the streets cleaned and the phones ringing and the taps running and the shelves filled and the packages delivered, who maintain the sewers and make it possible for the rest of us to stay at home in relative comfort. Many of them have lousy pay. Many professionals choose to work in the public sector even if they could make a lot more working for a private company because they see the value in doing a job that provides an important service to society as a whole. We need to appreciate them more. Medical workers and emergency services are getting a lot of praise as well – and it’s absolutely, 100% deserved – but if a few more people took a few moments to consider just how many other people are working almost completely invisibly to allow them to maintain their lifestyle the world would be a more understanding place. Their very invisibility shows us what a good job they do – nobody ever switches on a light in the developed world and is pleasantly surprised to find the electricity is on, but they sure as hell notice when it goes off.

Best wishes to everyone in the UK who has just been told by the country’s shambling mound of a prime minister on the telly that they’re now joining the lockdown club. Look after each other, remember that it’s always okay at least so far to get out for a walk if you really need one, and look after your neighbours. It’s boring, but it’s necessary, and you’ll get used to it.

Lockdown diary, day 7

I haven’t been able to write anything here for the last few days not for terrible health-related reasons but because I was just too wiped out in the evening to do so. When you find yourself having to do a full workload as well as a dose of childcare and a bunch of extra worrying about the world it doesn’t leave much time for relaxation in the evening,

So how do things look after the first full week of isolation? Things seem to be going in the right direction, at least so far. The day-on-day increase in infection numbers has gone from 40% ten days ago to 15.4% today, which is already a major improvement. However, that doesn’t mean we’re going to be out of here soon. The numbers need to get below 10% and stay there, and the current measures have been extended until Easter Monday (13th April). That’s another three weeks, after which if all goes well the measures will hopefully start to gradually relax.

People are doing a good job of sticking to the rules. The police have had to hand out a bunch of fines, mostly to people gathering in large groups in public and refusing to disperse, but mostly things are pretty orderly. Everyone is just getting on with it. It helps that the weather is forecast to be chilly for the next week – this will help to keep the numbers down in the park and make the required (at least 1 metre) separation between people easier to maintain. I’m happy that people are sticking to the rules, because so long as that’s the case the more likely it is that the parks will be allowed to remain open. If the parks have to be closed thanks to a small minority of idiots, those idiots are not going to be popular with the rest of us who cherish the ability to get out and enjoy the park even if it’s just for a half-hour walk.

Thoughts are now starting to turn to what sort of a world will emerge from the end of this crisis. It’s certainly going to look pretty grim from an economic point of view, with possible unemployment rates up to 20% and a long, hard road back to normality not just for the businesses and workers who have been affected but for society as a whole. But that society will be one in which a number of things are suddenly and starkly clear. Millions of people will be alive thanks to modern medicine and enormous scientific effort who would otherwise be dead. COVID-19 will not be conquered by goji berries and detox wraps, but by an unprecedented global scientific and public health effort with decisions made based on hard science or hard data (sorry, Gwyneth Paltrow). People are already learning to appreciate the seemingly miraculous production and supply chains which keep us fed, and the contributions to our daily lives made by the doctors, nurses, carers, paramedics, supermarket staff, postal workers and others who are giving their all to keep society intact. We can now imagine far more clearly how life would be without them because we’ve been forced to do so.

But ultimately, the most important thing which is happening now is the final death of Margaret Thatcher’s famous and much-repeated (although to her credit, actually slightly misquoted) line about there being “no such thing as society”. Anyone who couldn’t see it before must now see that there is indeed such a thing as society. We are seeing that when thousands of people lose their livelihoods through no fault of their own it is important that there is a properly-funded, accessible safety net to ensure they can continue to keep their heads above water with dignity. We are seeing that you cannot cut your way to redemption, that austerity puts lives at risk, that we all need to look out for each other. And we are seeing that the welfare of every member of society contributes to the welfare of society as a whole. The threads that bind us together are far, far stronger than the neoliberal, burn-it-all-down governments of the last decade thought.

As we watch previously “fiscally cautious” governments across the world open the floodgates and drive themselves deeper into the red than ever before in order to have a hope of having an economy worth speaking of when this is all over, the dogma that public borrowing is somehow immoral goes up in smoke. After all, surely they could simply leave things as they are in the knowledge that the free market would wave its magic free market wand when the time was right, no? Turns out that no, that doesn’t work, and that if you insist that it does people end up dead. I’m not sure where it was I read the claim that “just as there are no atheists on a sinking ship, there are no libertarians in a pandemic” (see footnote), but it strikes me as very true. When you’re standing on the top of the ladder you think you got there all by yourself, but as soon as a major societal crisis comes along and the ground underneath it comes to subside it’s straight off to the government for a few bags of cement, especially once it becomes clear that the magical concrete mixer of the free market is not going to intervene to prop it up.

I guess we shall see. Maybe the world will go straight back to its old selfish, mean-spirited political ways, but it would be nice if it didn’t. Oh, and if you haven’t read it, you should read Anthony “The Angry Chef” Warner’s absolutely superb essay on coronavirus, food, and society. It’s where I stole found inspiration for most of the above ideas.

One more thing – some people still seem to be panic-buying toilet paper. What do they intend to do with it all?

Footnote: Except for the wacky American ones who think food only finds its way to your supermarket shelves thanks to the action of an unrestricted free market and that all pharmaceutical development is entirely done by private companies who gain nothing whatsoever from the huge amounts of publicly-funded research done in universities and elsewhere. You know, those ones.

Lockdown diary, day 3

What day is it? Wednesday? Friday? Maybe something completely new such as Blurmday? Ah yes. Wednesday. Day three. So, what’s going on?

The Pötzleinsdorfer Schloßpark, earlier today.

It was a nice day. As T had to teach a class this morning I took the 2 year-old out for a (legally permissible) walk in the park. There were quite a few people out enjoying the sun – not in large groups, and always keeping their distance from others. Elsewhere bakers are still open for fresh bread and takeaway coffee, supermarkets are still open, and the place seems quiet but still alive.

The government’s now announced €38 billion in aid to attempt to keep the economy alive. It’s a combination of direct cash support, loan guarantees and tax breaks. This will certainly help things out, but the other side of the coin is that the country has registered over 49,000 new unemployed people since Sunday. In a country of 8.8 million, that’s a lot. There are no doubt a lot more to come.

Other things have been going on. There’s chaos down the road at the Hungarian border as people wanting to cross the border decided to block the border crossing with parked vehicles when they found they couldn’t cross. The Hungarian government had opened the border overnight for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals wanting to transit the country to return to Romania and Bulgaria, but the message had got out that they would be letting other nationalities through as well and it all got a bit chaotic. I feel for people stuck on the wrong side of a border at the moment. There are measures being taken to make sure people get a place to stay and are looked after, but that’s no substitute when what you really want to do is go home.

Panic-buying, British style.

Back at home, the postman delivered four boxes of teabags to ensure that we don’t run low. One of the logistical complexities of being a British person living abroad is making sure you have a supply of decent teabags. There’s an English-speaking grocery store in town which sells a decent range of British and American groceries, but I’m not in that part of town very often and they don’t always have the tea I’m after so we usually order it from the UK. So long as we have milk and sugar to go with it, and the ability to boil water, we’ll be all right.

Tomorrow I have to attempt to get properly back to work. My employer is extremely understanding and supportive of those of us who need to somehow figure out child care as well as attempting to work from home, but I also have quite a bit going on at work and don’t wish to slow down the rest of my excellent team. We’ll see how it goes.

Lockdown diary, day 2

The least said about today the better, I think. You know that thing where the plans you’d hoped would carry you through a couple of weeks of emergency measures in a way that would sustain both sanity and practicality evaporate within a day of being put into practice thanks to bureaucratic intransigence, a two year old with a sudden fever who isn’t all that well and just simple bad luck? Yep, that’s what happened.

More tomorrow, and hopefully a resolution tomorrow which takes into account the fact that it is absolutely impossible for a university lecturer to teach while a toddler constantly demands attention. The position that is being taken is “If you are working from home, you don’t need daycare” even when the work that is being done actually involves live teaching of other people and thus needs a certain amount of quiet and the ability to concentrate. The government has been very clear that they want university teaching to continue even with buildings closed, but they need to provide the support academic staff need to make that happen. I can’t take over full-time childcare partly because I also need to work but mainly because if T is in the apartment the toddler will only ever want mummy and will be distraught if he is arbitrarily denied access. So.. yeah, that isn’t going to work.

Of course, some of this can’t be helped. A feverish toddler can’t go to daycare even if he doesn’t have any of the other symptoms that might point to coronavirus, but the difference is that while normally I would stay at home to look after him while T went to the university to teach that option is not currently available. So yeah, overall today was not one I’d like to repeat.

The good news is that now all the panic-buying has subsided the supermarkets are lovely and quiet and extremely well stocked. The even better news is that the Mayor of Vienna was on the news last night and confirmed that yes, it is okay to not only go for a walk to get yourself out of the house but also to use public transport to get to somewhere nice to walk so long as you keep the obligatory 1-metre distance from other people.

The police have reported extremely good compliance with the restrictions. They’ve only had to intervene in a couple of cases. One was when when large crowds formed, depressingly enough, outside a couple of unemployment offices and they had to marshal the queue into something more ordentlich. The other involved the street prostitution around Prater, where I presume police had reason to believe the ladies concerned did not intend to remain a safe one metre away from their customers. For the rest of us, when compliance is good it means enforcement is not going to be heavy-handed. I hope it stays that way.

Lockdown diary, day 1

At midnight today the catchily-named COVID-19-Massnahmengesetz, or COVID-19 Measures Law, came into effect and along with it a regulation (enabled by the same law) to impose a strict lockdown on the whole of Austria. Very few people think these measures are a bad idea. The situation in Austria right now is serious, but to prevent it becoming even more serious and to “flatten the top” of the epidemiological curve it’s the right thing to do. No argument there. It’s doing exactly what the UK isn’t doing, which probably means it’s an excellent idea. It’s doing what Italy should have done a week or so earlier, and given that Italy is right there across the southern border it makes a lot of sense to act decisively.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be boring and stressful as hell.

A regulation, today.

In summary, the situation as of today is that everything that is not necessary for daily life is closed. Most shops are closed. From tomorrow restaurants and cafes are closed as well. Supermarkets and pharmacists and drogeries (in case you have an urgent need for homeopathic remedies) are open. Tobacco shops can remain open because while reducing smoking numbers is an excellent public health nudge, forcing the smoking population to give up en masse while shut in their apartment with their families probably isn’t good for their families. You can post a letter or buy stamps. You can commute to work on public transport if you really can’t work from home, but you really should be working from home unless you’re something like a policeman or a tram driver or a doctor – or one of those other unsung heroes of daily life, a checkout operator at Billa.

You can take your kids to nursery if you really need to, and even primary schools are open to provide care for children whose parents absolutely have to work and absolutely can’t do it from home. Emergency workers, carers, doctors, pharmacists, food supply workers and so on have carte blanche in this area for obvious reasons. The rest of us have to be really convinced that we can’t work with the kids around – ultimately the decision is up to parents, but the government has been very, very unsubtle around its messaging in this area. I’ve lost count of the time that Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (a man who at 33 is the world’s youngest head of government and thus looks as if they’re letting the work experience kid fill in for the day as a treat) has stood in front of the cameras and sternly warned people to “Stay at home!”. He has a good cop/bad cop thing going with Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler where Kurz sternly tells people that if they’re found out on the street without good reason they’ll be fined a million billion euros and held responsible for the deaths of thousands before Kogler cheerfully reassures people that “of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t go for a walk!”.

Yes – we’re explicitly allowed to go for a walk, or a bike ride, or something else that lets you get outside and decompress for a bit. This walk has, however, to be “urgent”, which has led to a fair amount of debate on exactly what an “urgent walk” is supposed to be among people who don’t have small kids.

You’re also only allowed to be out in public in the company of people who live in the same household as you do, and any group of five or more is likely to draw attention from any police officers who happen by. Assorted terrifying punishments await transgressors – although the police are supposed to adopt a softly-softly approach at first, ultimately there are fines of over €3000 available for serious offenders and in extreme cases police have powers to break up groups by force. In reality this seems unlikely to happen, especially here in the genteel 18th district of Vienna, but given the blizzard of conflicting “you can do this, you can‘t do this” messages over the last week most people seem to be waiting to see how the first couple of days go in order to calibrate their… er… going-out-acceptabilityometer. And one more thing – when you are out you’re expected to keep a distance of at least a metre from anyone else you meet. This is even the case on public transport, making it just as well that the majority of people are staying at home because to achieve that kind of inter-passenger separation on the famously overcrowded U6 would require a train approximately every two seconds under normal conditions.

Anyway, yes. Day 1. The daughter watched too many movies and did some of the homework she’d been given for school. Then we gave her special permission to establish an area in her room which is, for the next two weeks, hers to make as much mess as she wants in so long as it’s still possible to reach her bed and her brother’s cot without tripping over anything. The intention here is that we can maintain the living room as a slightly more liveable space for grown-ups, although whether we will achieve that for more than two days running remains to be seen.

I got some work done while my other half got some teaching done as the university has cancelled all in-person teaching and ordered academics to instantly move to online teaching instead. The student who immediately asked “Is this exercise compulsory?” at the beginning of the lesson should probably consider themselves quite lucky they weren’t there in person.

So what have we learned so far? Firstly, that nobody has any clue how long this will last. The emergency order is only valid for a week, but it will almost certainly get extended. That in itself is a major form of stress – when you don’t know how many days there are to go, you can’t count them down. Secondly, that nobody even in authority really has any clue of the practicalities of how this will work. The broad brush strokes are in place, but there are a thousand FAQs that simply haven’t been answered yet because nobody has got round to them. The rules of society have been abruptly changed in one of the most disruptive ways possible, and absolutely everyone from the police to the politicians to the general public (that’s me!) is having to feel their way and look for cues as we try and work out exactly how this “new normal” will work. As routine sets in over the next few days I think things will improve, but right now I feel absolutely uncomfortable and stressed in a way I can’t quite describe. The good news is that well, so does everyone else.

Things Amazon delivered today: a case of nappies, two 5kg bags of sushi rice and a pair of espresso glasses. I guess we’re all set for the essentials for the time being.

Addendum: About 15 seconds (really) after I hit “Publish”, we discovered that our 2-year-old has got a fever. To quote the sage Ferris Bueller – live moves pretty fast.

Rites de passage, Austrian style

It was when the police officer on the corner started looking angry and walked towards me with her hand held out in the universal gesture of “stop” that I realised I’d done something wrong.

I was on the way to school one morning last week to drop off my daughter. The usual tram had been delayed for no very clear reason beyond an announcement on the tram that “We will wait here for 15 minutes” so to avoid being late (school here starts at 8, which my dears is frankly inhumane) we had to reroute and walk a different route to our usual one from the tram stop to school. There were a lot of kids on the way to school – some with adults accompanying them, others not, and the street was busy.

“What on earth are you doing? Didn’t you learn about that at primary school? See, the children all stop! They know to stop! Why don’t you?” she rattled off furiously. My German is pretty good but people being cross at me in the Viennese dialect takes a few seconds to parse, so I stared at her for a few seconds before the magnitude of my crime became clear to me. This only seemed to make her more annoyed as I stumbled around in my early-morning brain trying to get a suitable reply together. Being a white middle-aged male I’d never had a police officer be quite this rude to me before, so the whole thing was very disorienting. Had I accidentally murdered someone without noticing?

It didn’t take long to figure out what the problem was. At the crossroads where we just crossed the road there were zebra stripes in each direction so we would have normally had priority when crossing – but there was also a policeman directing traffic in the middle of the crossroads for some reason. I had misinterpreted the fact that the pedestrians crossing at right-angles to us were allowed to cross as meaning that all pedestrians were allowed to cross, and thus…

I had not only jaywalked, I had jaywalked:

  • Blatantly
  • Egregiously
  • While escorting a child
  • Against the signals of a police officer directing traffic
  • Right under the nose of a second police officer who had been looking directly at me.

This made me not just a criminal, but a wanton criminal. It didn’t matter that the road was at most 3 metres wide and no cars were coming, I had committed an offence under §76(3) of the Strassenverkehrsordnung*. And from my confused response it was clear to them that not only was I a wanton criminal, I was a foreign scofflaw criminal who thought the rules didn’t apply to him and was teaching his child to walk straight out into traffic and who should probably be deported.

I’m so sorry, I said once my brain’s language centre caught up with the barrage of remonstration it was having to process. I didn’t realise that.. “Why didn’t you wait? All the other children are waiting! Didn’t you learn this in primary school?” Well, actually when I was at primary school it was in the UK where the road rules are different (in general, if one set of pedestrians is clear to cross everyone is clear to cross) so no, I didn’t actually learn that – but explaining that would have only changed the lecture to “Well, that may be how they do it in England but this is Austria and (etc)”. Maybe I should explain that every country I’ve lived in has completely different ways for police to direct traffic? The Swiss, for instance, almost make a ballet of it, while here it’s much less clear what they mean and..


Pardon? “Ausweis!” she repeated. Oh, yeah. ID. I fished out the right card from my wallet and handed it over. She started copying the details into her notebook while continuing to tell me, in case I had missed it the first four times, that I should have learned about this stuff in primary school, that five year olds know to stop, and that I was clearly a terrible person. Finally she shut her notebook and handed my ID back, dismissing me with a terse “Rechnung kommt per Post” – the bill will come in the post. In other words, I could expect a fine of an as yet undetermined amount depending on how serious my offending was considered to be.

I was initially annoyed by the whole thing partly because I knew exactly where I’d gone wrong, it was the result of confusion on my part and really there wasn’t any need to have been quite so relentlessly rude to me. But then I realised that I’d passed the final rite de passage for living in the German-speaking world.

Crossing the road in such a disorderly manner – such a reckless, untidy and above all unordentlich manner – is against the law in all three of the main German-speaking countries. The Internet is full of outraged complaints from visitors from the UK or US who marched proudly across the road against the red man and then worked out why everyone else was waiting when a policeman appeared out of nowhere like Mr Benn’s costumier and reached for their pad of tickets while passers-by tutted and whispered.

So after 11 years my essential Britishness had finally caught up with me. I’m generally scrupulous about knowing what the local laws are and being a well-behaved foreigner everywhere I go, but my jaywalking ticket will always remind me that however German-speaking I am, however much I call cream “Obers” and get excited about Tafelspitz, and however competent I am at navigating the local bureaucracy and generally being a local, deep down I am always going to be that British person who takes a crafty look left and right before nipping across the road against the red man when nothing’s coming. The only difference is that these days I join in the chorus of tutting when someone does it while there are small children waiting to cross because everyone enjoys the chance to feel self-righteous.

It’s now been a week and a half and the ticket hasn’t appeared yet. My research has found that there is no fixed fine for the crime of jaywalking, but €70 seems to be the going rate with the maximum available under the law being a rather surprising €726 – the same range as for jumping a red light in your car, unbelievably, and substantially more than is available for lesser offences including jumping from a moving vehicle and illegally practising winter sports on the road. I have a feeling they’ll whack up the fine from the minimum because it was such an unforgivably blatant act of lawbreaking that if repeated could threaten to tear the very fabric of Austrian society asunder, but we’ll see.

Incidentally, in an attempt to avoid further misunderstandings I turned around a few paces after being dismissed, went back and asked her what the hand signals were that I should look for from police directing traffic to be sure I could cross safely. The reply was that I should have learned that in primary school.

* Just so you know: (3) An Stellen, wo der Verkehr für Fußgänger durch besondere Lichtzeichen (§ 38 Abs. 8) geregelt ist, dürfen Fußgänger nur bei grünem Licht die Fahrbahn zum Überqueren betreten. An Stellen, wo der Verkehr sonst durch Arm- oder Lichtzeichen geregelt ist, dürfen Fußgänger die Fahrbahn nur überqueren, wenn für den Fahrzeugverkehr auf dieser Fahrbahn das Zeichen „Halt“ (§§ 37 Abs. 3 und 38 Abs. 5) gilt. Hält ein Verkehrsposten einen Arm senkrecht nach oben oder leuchtet gelbes, nicht blinkendes Licht, so dürfen Fußgänger die Fahrbahn nicht betreten. Wenn Fußgänger die Fahrbahn in Übereinstimmung mit den angeführten Arm- oder Lichtzeichen betreten haben, sich diese Zeichen jedoch ändern, während sich die Fußgänger auf der Fahrbahn befinden, so dürfen sie die Überquerung der Fahrbahn fortsetzen, bei Vorhandensein einer Schutzinsel jedoch nur bis zu dieser.