WASHINGTON - Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe and the United States, Austrian Ambassador Martin Weiss has tweeted a series of messages on what is happening in Austria, on the crisis-related duties in which he is involved and on his host city’s response to the crisis. A career diplomat, Weiss took time to explain to VOA the issues that prompted some of his recent tweets.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: After receiving an alert from the Washington, D.C., government announcing a citywide lockdown effective March 25 at 10 p.m., you immediately tweeted the announcement and called it a “serious appeal during serious times.” How does D.C.’s response compare to Vienna’s?
Weiss: Vienna and Austria, in general, took a quite proactive stance in this crisis, and they did that early on. On March 15, the federal (Austrian central) government already decided to pretty much lock the country down. Businesses are closed (except for supermarkets, banks and pharmacies). People work from home. You are only supposed to go outside together with the people you live with, etc. We all must stay at home for a while. D.C. did the right thing. This is not easy for anyone, but there’s no alternative.
(Since the interview, Weiss has tweeted that the Austrian government has tightened its rules and announced that beginning March 30, no one who is not wearing a mask is allowed to enter the supermarket.)
VOA: Three hundred Austrians left the United States for home last week. Was it because the outbreak seemed less severe there?
Weiss: There were very different reasons for their return. Many were just tourists ready to cut their trips short. Others worked in hotels and restaurants and had simply lost their jobs. Also, many students were leaving because their schools have closed for the foreseeable future. Many of them felt that they were better off in Austria. There, they have family. There, they are familiar with the health care system, etc. Plus, many Austrians have the feeling that our government does a very good job in this crisis. The Austrian government has taken proactive steps early on, informs the public daily about the latest developments, keeps expectations at a realistic level, has adopted a huge rescue package for workers and the economy, etc. Austrians are concerned, but by and large, think our country does what it can in this difficult time.
VOA: Tell us more about Austria's stimulus package.
Weiss: It amounts to roughly 10 percent of Austria's gross domestic product. In that sense, we are in lockstep with the U.S. Both of our governments are pulling out all the stops in an effort to keep our economies, and, thereby, the livelihood of so many people who depend on it afloat.
VOA: What is Austria using to test and treat patients who may be suffering from COVID-19?
Weiss: Austrian company Procomcure (Biotech Gmbh) has recently developed a very promising testing kit that gives you precise results within hours. Little wonder that they are already exporting it to many countries all over the world. When it comes to testing, Austria is currently in the European median — neither extremely good nor very bad. But the government has realized that more tests are needed and is currently trying hard to get the numbers up. Without thorough testing, there is no way of getting out of this crisis for good.
As to our health care system, Austria has traditionally a high number of hospital beds per capita — 750 beds per 100,000 inhabitants. We have often been criticized for that because it makes our system expensive. However, in this crisis, this seems to be a clear advantage.
VOA: You retweeted an image of Italian armed forces arriving in Bergamo to take away coffins from hospitals, underscoring the gravity of the situation in Italy. Is Austria doing anything to help Italy?
Weiss: We have supported our southern neighbor right from the beginning, bilaterally as well as in the framework of the European Union. Just this past week, Austria transported urgently needed personal protection equipment, including 1.6 million face masks, to northern Italy. European and global solidarity is crucial these days.
VOA: What do you think the future will be for multinational corporations and for globalization in the aftermath of the pandemic?
Weiss: There are a lot of debates out there on how this crisis will change our lives, change corporations, change the way the world cooperates in the future, etc. Frankly, I am not so sure. As human beings, we are amazingly adept in forgetting bad things. Once something bad — or even something terrible — has passed, we are more than ready to "go back to normal.” In other words, old habits die hard. Some business models will certainly take a hit. I wonder, for example, about the future of the cruise ship industry. With so many stories about being stranded on ships, I suppose it will be a while before passengers will be ready for this kind of voyage again. But in general, I believe the world before and after corona will not be all that much different.
VOA: What would you like to see the U.S. do more or less of to tackle this outbreak both domestically and abroad?
Weiss: The devilish thing about this new virus is that it is highly infectious, and none of us is immune. It thus grows exponentially. … Exponential growth starts slow, little by little, and then it very rapidly explodes. I still have the feeling that many people in the U.S. and around the world fail to grasp this. The exponential curve knows no mercy. We all -- the U.S., Europe and the rest of the world -- have to work together and as hard as we can. It is this level of unequivocal seriousness that is needed now, and the U.S. should lead in this effort.
VOA: Your tweet that has generated the most “likes” is a video clip involving a mock question about the quarantine. Given an option, a man chooses not to stay with his wife and kids. What does this say about the human condition?
Weiss: This clip simply made me laugh hard. And just to be clear, it probably cuts both ways, and his wife would have quickly said "B," too. But I have seen many somewhat humorous reactions to this crisis, and I think it is very important not to lose that, even in the toughest of times. Humor is the best medicine, they say. I´m not sure it’s a cure for COVIID-19, but it certainly helps.