"New fault line in pandemic between those with health insurance and those without"


So far 16,731 people have been caught Covid-19 in Austria, where 668 people have died due to coronavirus. Professor Yuri Kazepov both relayed his observations on the country and questioned the reasons why poor people were more likely to catch coronavirus.

Prof. Dr. Kazepov stressed that it was a privilege to be able to stay at home, explaining this with an anecdote he had observed in Brazil

Dr. Kazepov: “The measures taken in early March to prevent the spread of the virus in Brazil were very difficult to implement in the favelas. There the virus struck the population that had to work the most to survive. The new fault line is between those with health insurance and those without.”

Prof. Dr. Kazepov interviewed by Uğur Şahin for BirGün

First of all, I wonder what story of first “meeting” with the coronavirus experienced your community. When did your country realize that this virus was “serious”?

This is not an easy question, because I was not in Austria when this happened. My life was at that time quite mobile. I personally first met the virus in Kyoto (Japan) where I spent a short period of my sabbatical: it was the first half of February when Japan got the first Corona victim. Austria had none at that time. Japan is a very disciplined country, there wearing masks is quite a common practice. This helped the country substantially in containing the virus. Up to now, Japan had almost the same number of cases as did Austria (approx 16.000), however Japan has a population of 126,5 milion people while Austria´s population is only 8,86 million, i.e. 7%. After Japan I went for the final part of my sabbatical to Brazil, where there was actually no debate of Corona. Things changed dramatically when I flew back to Europe / Vienna on March 8th! My kids live in Italy and I monitored closely the situation from abroad and was worried about the spread of the virus. Compared to Italy, however, the perception of danger in Austria was much less pronounced. I was shocked by this underestimation even though, the week after, from March 16th, the country went in lockdown until April 14th.

How were measures and social helps reflected to the public in Austria?

From the lockdown onwards politics – a centre-right/green coalition – took the issue very seriously and accompanied restrictions with support measures to address the most urgent needs. One measure stood as key to deal with the emergency: short-term work! This measure helped securing more than 600.000 jobs during the crisis, almost 16% of all jobs. If we add to this figure the unemployed we reach 1,2 million people without a job, i.e. 30% of the workforce! The measures provided sunstantial economic support to people who risked to lose their job: 80-90% of their net wage for 3-6 months. The government fueled the system with growing resources to avoid the social collapse, addressing both workers and employers and different vulnerable groups. This translated – so far – into a relatively broad support for the chancellor and his government.

Professor Yuri Kazepov

What is your observation of the latest situation in the your country?

After the peak on April 3rd the numbers of people positive to corona started to decline in Austria and this brougth the government to relax the lockdown from April 14th. People could go out again, more shops opened. My impression is that “back to normal” was a bit too fast. In particular, in Vienna, my impression was, and still is, that people were not that careful as one would have expected. And indeed in Vienna – differently from all other regions (Bundesländer) – the number of people positive to corona, started to increase again from the 21st of April. In general terms we could say that the development of the pandemic in Austria was managed relatively well compared to other countries, also because the health system is quite well developed. The number of beds in intensive care units is – together with Germany – the highest in Europe: 5,5 every 1000 inhabitants. One important exception is in the early stages of the pandemic the government of Tyrol. It underestimated the seriousness of the situation and went on with ski-vacation activities infecting tourists from many European countries (Norway, Germany,...). More than 4,500 people subscribed to a class action.

How do people spend time in quarantine? What is the situation of those who have to work?

People do all sort of things during quarantine. Those who are privileged continue to work from home. I am teaching from home organise meetings, manage projects, etc. The workload increased like a digital tsunami more emails, webinars, zoom, skype, collaborate, bib blue botton, meetings all increased almost exponentially. But I am aware this is quite privileged. Those who were able to continue working from home might have had issues in balancing family-work duties, more so if there are underage children in the family and both partners work. Schools were closed for two months and only from May 18th some classes can go back to face-to-face teaching. Of course the most vulnerable group is seasonal or precarious work in economic branches particularly affected by the lockdown (e.g. tourism, leisure, culture,...). If they had a contract before the lockdown, they might be on on a short-term measure otherwise on unemployment benefits. All of a sudden they had lots of time, but not a good mood. For them fear of the future and depression developed rapidely.

In the long term, the low purchasing power of the people and the lack of a saving or an additional budget that can combat the virus makes it impossible for the poor to implement quarantine conditions. What is your opinion in this topic?

Corona does not hit the population equally, poor people are hit most, this is clear from the analysis of the groups most at risk and is valid in almost every country. However, a very important role is played by the welfare state and its institutions and safety nets. Austria has quite well developed social policies, these stabilise expenditure also in times of crisis and contribute to lower economic inequalities. The short-term-work measures provided an effective buffer to prevent processes of impoverishment in the short-medium term. Of course if the situation will last longer we might see also parts of the lower middle classes becoming even more vulnerable and at risk of poverty. So far this did not happen. In other countries the likelyhood of experiencing hardship and risking ones own life for low income households is much greater. In Brazil, where I was early March, all measures to prevent the spread of the virus (washing hands, keeping distance, increase hygiene measures, wearing masks,...) are difficult to follow in favelas. There, the virus hits the population most, and those people have to go to work in order to survive. The new faultline is between health secure and health unsecure jobs... the the people at risk are often the same.

In the UK, where at least 28,446 deaths due to coronavirus have been recorded, death rates in the epidemic are higher in the country's poorer regions, according to a study by the National Statistical Office (ONS). Britain is just one example and we can increase example. For example, Brazil; locals were most affected by Covid-19 here. What can you say about groups affected by the virus? What is the situation like in poverty-intensive locations, suburbs, lower income citizens?

It is always vulnerable groups who are hit most. Not only in the UK or Brazil but in general all over the world. The same applies in the US, ... where it is afro-americans and latino who are more at risk. The point is that these groups are in general more exposed to any problem might emerge. Being it the pandemic or cyclical economic downturn or personal life events, they lack the resources to address the emerging or existing needs. They are also often segregated in specific neighbourhoods. In countries with an extensive state intervention this situation is kept under control through inclusive redistributive policies, economic support and service provision (from health to activation services). In these countries spatial segregation is also less pronouced and gated communities are rather the exception. The Gini index is a simple but effective indicator to grasp income inequalities. In Brazil it was 53,9, in the US 41,4; in the UK 35,9 and in Austria 29,7. These large differences across countries could provide us with hints on the magnitude of the hardship vulnerable people are experiencing also in Corona times. The pandemic shows clearly the importance of the state and its intervention. Where it lacks adequate interventions, the consequences are more severe. Is there a come-back of the state? Crisis situations always require keynesian interventions, a lesson to be learned on the negative consequences of neoliberal policies leaving individuals alone to face problems and hardship.

Problems leading to the outbreak days for poor citizens and immigrants living in Germany; a narrower living space, difficulty in accessing cheap food, and inadequate social helps. How would you summarize the conditions that forced people during the pandemic days? What is the situation especially for immigrants?

Migrants are among the most vulnerable groups, being overrepresented among the unemployed or the employed with bad working conditions, etc. This is reflected also in smaller flats and worse living conditions. Among immigrants a particularly vulnerable group are refugees, who not only concentrate all stigma and precariousness, but are often concentrated in targeted shelters. Also in this case, it is the state that makes the difference, but not the state alone. In Austria a dense network of charities and NGOs complements state action with voluntary action and support, giving raise to interesting and innovative initiatives, e.g. in Vienna restaurants run by refugees (e.g. habibi hawara), hotels run by refugees (Magdas Hotel), etc. These innovations, however, do not mean that the state retreats its responsibilities, it rather means that it supports innovations. Resources do not diminish through delegation of social responsibilities, they rather complement each other.

A UK-based charity, Oxfam, announced that nearly a billion people could live on the poverty line because of the economic recession worldwide. Oxfam said that the current crisis was much worse than the 2008 economic crisis. In your opinion, what kind of situation awaits the low income and the poor after the coronavirus epidemic?

We have several senarios. Back to “normal” is one of them, but it is quite unlikely and I am not even sure it is what we want. The pandemic clearly shows that market dependence vis-à-vis lacking state support produces the worst scenario. The US reality shows clearly that if we don´t guarantee basic rights to people simply because they exist, we might always exclude many from the “right to live”. This would speak in favour of universal basic income. However, despite my sympaties, I am rather uncertain if there is enough social support to put forward such a bold measure. Recent surveys (the European Social Survey) show a relative high – but generic – support for an unconditional basic income. However, targeted evaluations show the complexity of such an endavour and also the feeling that such a universal right might undermine the work ethic, i.e. the availability to work. This rather conservative attitude is permeated by a neoliberal ideology that requires to push people back to the labour market at whatever cost! The people “should feel the pressure”. This sentiment tends to prevail even in Finland where a measure close to a universal basic income has been tested. However, the way in which the question is put is wrong and it is clear that the measure by itself is a necessary but not sufficient step towards more inclusive policies. Another scenario partains to the countries with very fragmented and market preserving status measures which might be put under pressure to expand their coverage, by supporting those who fall in the interstices. Only the richest countries might afford this expansion, the others will try, but will still exclude the most vulnerable groups. This will increase the number of people at risk of poverty. I tend – unfortunately – to see these scenario as the most realistic in the short-medium term.

The control of epidemic is more difficult in big cities such as New York, London and Istanbul. What do you attribute this to? Is this reason of this problem high density construction and urban designs that cause crowded populations to live together?

Density plays of course a role, but it is not just that. Regulatory measures influence people´s behaviour and the risk to be exposed to the virus. Willingness to follow the rules is also part of the equation. There are tendencies towards less dense cities, but density has also advantages in efficient and more sustainable consumption patterns. The real issue, however, is how will cities react and what innovations will be possible? How will we be able to balance density with adequate ways to deal with infections. At the end of the XIX century in Hamburg the outbreak of colera brought about a deep crisis, but also a process of sanitation which improved long term the quality of life in the city and the isolation of the colera bacteria. This does not mean we should be happy to experience extreme hartship, it means that cities amplify every social phenomena, its unequal consequences. This poses serious issues to politicians and opens up windows of opportunities for changes for the better. Its up to us to take them.