Family and friends in Canada and the United States have asked about my situation here in Vienna during the COVID-19 pandemic. This post is for you; I might write another, wonkier one that focuses more on science, (mis)information, and policy.

First things first: I'm fine!


During grad school, I was lucky to travel to China a number of times; live in Beijing for half of 2013; and make many Chinese friends. Through them—whether they live in China or abroad—I've been hearing about the situation since…
late January 2020
…when Lunar New Year celebrations were cancelled in many cities, and the lockdown of Wuhan was announced. By the time Austria locked down, some friends had been quarantined for more than six weeks.
27 January
First e-mail from the leaders of IIASA, where I work, concerning the pandemic. Travel to affected areas in China was discouraged.
Friday 31 January–Sunday 01 February

I made a weekend trip to Rome to visit A—, a friend from Boston who was studying Italian/working remotely. We heard on the news that the first Italian COVID-19 cases had been identified, also in Rome. Flights to and from China were quickly cancelled. I saw this report:

[…] the director of the prestigious S. Cecilia music school has created controversy by banning all east Asian students from attending classes and exams until they take a medical test to prove they are not infected with the Coronavirus.

and shared with a friend, saying, “Yikes.” [1]

25 February

The first cases in Austria were confirmed in Innsbruck in the state of Tyrol, which directly borders Italy. See timeline of the pandemic in Austria.

IIASA sent reminders of public health measures and resources for within Austria.

27 February
I read that the first confirmed case in Vienna had stayed in the Rudolfstiftung hospital in Vienna's 3rd district for about 10 days before being tested and diagnosed. The hospital is about 200 metres from my flat.
10 March

IIASA sent a reminder that “staff without symptoms must come to work,” excepting recent travel or possible exposure.

Austria canceled outdoor events with ≥500 participants, or indoor events with ≥100 participants. This effectively meant the closure of all universities, with some of the closures being delayed until 16 March. Theatre, orchestra, and opera performances were also cancelled.

Thursday 12 March
IIASA encouraged staff to work from home, starting the next day.
Friday 13 March
I took a train to Bad Ischl, in Upper Austria, for a weekend getaway.
Saturday/Sunday 14/15 March

Austria announced widespread restrictions taking effect on 16/17 March, including:

  • All non-essential workplaces closed, excluding only groceries, drug stores, banks, post offices, gas stations, and a few others.
  • All restaurants closed. This was initially (Saturday) announced as a restriction on opening hours to 3 pm; but on Sunday was tightened to total closure.
  • Penalties of up to €2180 for gatherings of more than 5 people, indoor or outdoor, unless those people live in the same dwelling. We are only to leave our homes for:
    • necessary purchases of groceries or medication,
    • assisting other people,
    • essential professional activities, or
    • walks, alone.
Monday 16 March
I returned from Bad Ischl; trains and stations were very quiet despite a bright, early-spring day.
22 March

I learned that a colleague of mine had tested positive for COVID-19. This person had been at a 5 March event in Mexico with someone else who later, sadly, died of the disease. I had been in a meeting with them on 9 March, but after that no contact until home office started on 13 March.

According to Austria's rules (here, on the City of Vienna website), this meant I should self-quarantine for 14 days, i.e. until 23 March, only one day after I received the notice.

25 March
I learned that two other colleagues of mine had also tested positive for COVID-19.

How and what I'm doing

I'm working from home!

I wrote most of my PhD dissertation sitting at my kitchen table in Cambridge, MA, US, so it's not an unfamiliar situation; in fact, one in which I can focus better, with fewer interruptions. I recognize that I am extremely privileged in that I can be as or more productive from home, since I carry all my work with me, on my laptop. I have water, food, shelter, connectivity, no roommates, no need to go out frequently, no interruption to my income, a comfortable flat, plenty of unread books, and access to excellent medical care, should I need it. [2]

Neighbouring Italy, Austria reacted quickly, or as quickly as could be reasonably expected. I check charts like this one, updated daily by John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times. The chart shows a star where a country instituted widespread lockdowns; in Italy, this came on the same day as the 800th (!) COVID-19 death; sooner in Spain (200), France (175), and China (30). When Austria announced its lockdown on 14 March there had been about 500 cases and 1 death; by 16 March, when it took effect, only three people had died. This gives me confidence that politicians here are listening to public health experts and acting decisively on their advice.

The government of Canada has offered emergency loans for Canadians travelling abroad and encouraged travelers to return. If I were on vacation in Vienna, rather than living here—for instance, staying in a hotel without a kitchen and only a week's worth of clothes—I might consider returning. Likewise if I was vacationing in a poorer country, whose government would be much more challenged to respond to the pandemic.

As I see it, if I flew back to Canada, I would have to spend two weeks in quarantine, without any of the above comforts. Then, if I stayed or made contact with my family members—many of them in at-risk age/health groups for COVID-19—I could only be a vector for them to get the disease, if I happened to be an asymptomatic carrier. Finally, I worry that local, provincial, and federal orders of government in Canada have not responded, thus far, with the same alacrity and urgency as Vienna's.

All things considered, it seems best for me to sit tight and catch up on work!

Please get in touch if you have any questions, and I can update this post or write a follow-up.

And again: #StayHome !


[1]Racism, xenophobia, geopolitics, propaganda, misinformation, and backlashes to all of these have shaped responses to the pandemic; many have written about this in detail. I don't think this particular person achieved anything besides showing their true colours.
[2]Austria ranks near the top of European countries in terms of intensive/critical-care hospital beds per capita.


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