(The original article can be found by subscribers at The Telegraph online here.)
With the snow piling thick on the ground in Salzburg, I am amazed at two things in Austria which I do not think are unrelated.
The first is that neither temperature nor lockdown has in any way affected the average citizens’ visibility in the streets.
When I walk out of my front door on the Nonnberg, adjacent to the ancient convent where Julie Andrew’s portrayed a novitiate in The Sound Of Music, there are invariably locals tramping up and down the stairs and slopes, wading through drifts and sliding across ice, to stare at alpine mountain ranges in the middle distance.
As they say here, there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.
The second striking fact about living in Austria is that during this ‘lockdown’ – their third – in which you may leave your house at any time of day or night for any reason, psychological or physical, they have reduced the contagion of this novel coronavirus by 90% since mid-November.
Yes, it is true that bars, restaurants and hotels are all closed, and only one person from a household may visit “close family members” or “important contacts with whom contact is maintained several times a week” in another household.
Also, they have now upgraded their facemask legislation to FFP2 masks in shops and on transport. However, since the surgical-blue spit-stoppers – or bandanas or scarves – people were using before have always been known to be largely useless, it is hard to complain on that one.
Of course, this is so much clearer to the people walking up and down these frozen streets, along the river, and across the mountain paths, as all breath becomes bright white clouds of vapour, allowing you to quite literally side-step any possible virus. Perhaps that is why the population has been so compliant on such a minor point.
However, as someone who has studied medicine to some extent – admittedly as a biologist as an undergraduate, and a historian of medicine as a postgraduate – it comes as little surprise to me that a culture which advocates getting out into the sunlight (the vitamin D effect on the virus is well studied), and keeping the body moving and lungs pumping for general health, has managed to curtail their second wave while avoiding imprisoning their population. They have even reopened the ski lifts, although it is restricted to locals and if you want a full day of it, you have to bring your own picnic.
That said, despite the success of this lockdown-lite, it is funny how one still hears the voices in Austria – from both scientists and the general public – that either too little or too much is being restricted. And, given that I am sealed and stationed in the land of Freud, I have decided to while away the long winter nights delving into the psychology of it all.
A friend of mine, Dr Kevin Dutton, the last person I dined at a restaurant with – at Quod in Oxford (God, I miss restaurants!), sent me his latest book which sheds light on this very subject.
In Black and White Thinking, Dutton, an experimental psychologist who gained both notability and notoriety with The Wisdom of Psychopaths, writes of the burden of a binary brain in a complex world.
For much of his career, Dutton has been the great scientific adventurer in the dark hinterlands of the human psyche – he has worked with serial killers and the special forces, elite sportsmen and religious fundamentalists – and has now taken what he has learned from the extremes and applied it to the middle, to the population at large. And, looking at the world as it appears now, especially on social media, his work could not be more applicable.
Everyone, it seems, in the face of what is perceived as a great threat – a pandemic, although ideological divisiveness was metastasizing long before this – is retreating back into tribal, or indeed pre-tribal, herd-like loyalties. To be anti-masks (which I, personally, am not in certain settings), is to be against lockdowns (again, it depends), which is also to be pro-Brexit (which I was ambivalent on). Across the Atlantic, these allegiances even extend to gun-control, abortion, and the Black Lives Matter movement. One must choose one’s side, and, we are told, there are only two on offer.
Never has a popularly readable book of psychology – as opposed to a book of popular psychology – been more timely. Context, nuance, and point-by-point thinking seem to have fallen by the wayside in the public conversation.
Meanwhile, Austria, in lockdown, continues to enjoy the open air, and infection rates plummet. To the simple minded, this is this must seem like the conquest of a contradiction, to the nuanced, it is just a subtle, but successful difference.
While Britons are imprisoned, Austrians are encouraged to get out, stay fit, and soak up vitamin D
Cases have plummeted 90% in Austria, and without the sort of draconian rules Britain has adopted