‘Arrogance’ blinded big countries to virus risk, says Austria adviser

The “arrogance” of big countries blinded them to the risks of the coronavirus and caused delays that left them struggling to control the pandemic, the businesswoman charged with plotting Austria’s successful strategy against the disease has said.

Antonella Mei-Pochtler, former senior executive at consultant BCG, said Austria’s early decision to lock down public life — informed by monitoring what had happened elsewhere — was critical to stopping the spread of Covid-19. The government’s strategy was shaped after a small team in the federal chancellery consulted hospitals, doctors and scientists across the world in late February and early March. 

“We’re a small country, but we can learn from everybody and we do not think that we know everything,” Ms Mei-Pochtler told the Financial Times in an interview.

“There is an inborn arrogance of large countries who think no other country is like them . . . small countries tend to learn much more from each other. We are much more open, to looking right, left, up and down,” she added.

On Sunday the Austrian health ministry reported just 39 new cases of Covid-19. In total the country has had 15,531 infections, with 596 deaths — fewer over two months than the UK reported on Saturday alone. Austria was among the first countries in Europe to put stringent measures in place to control public life. 

The UK, in comparison, did not impose restrictions for more than a week after Austria — and even then reluctantly, with prime minister Boris Johnson bemoaning measures that restricted the “ancient” right of Britons to go to the pub. The UK’s infection rate and death toll are starkly worse than Austria’s. 

The 61-year-old businesswoman, who was born in Italy and educated in Germany, has emerged as one of the most influential advisers to chancellor Sebastian Kurz in his second term in office, as the world’s greatest public health crisis in a century has prioritised radical thinking over bureaucratic certainties.

Ms Mei-Pochtler runs an internal “think-tank” in the chancellery that she describes as a “sparring partner” for Austria’s established ministries.

She has also been put in charge of the “future operations clearing board”, which will oversee Austria’s normalisation of public life after the pandemic. Shops in the country are already open, and cafés and restaurants will begin serving customers again in mid-May.

When the first breakouts hit northern Italy in February, Ms Mei-Pochtler said her team began calling everyone they could for expert advice — not just through Austria’s diplomatic network, but through their own professional and social networks. The aim was to get a sense of the reality of the crisis beyond the dry numbers and caveated scientific information in circulation.

She recounted a conference call she joined with doctors in Lombardy and Emilia Romagna in the first week of March: “They said, it’s like war going on here,” she said. “That kind of discussion was super important. Beyond just reading about all this stuff, nothing is actually like talking to the people, looking at them in the video, seeing the sense of urgency. That informed a lot of our actions.” 

The information was crucial in shaping Mr Kurz’s thinking, she said. Austria restricted gatherings on March 10 and went into full lockdown on March 16. 

Public trust in the government and public institutions — alongside a measure of luck — have also been factors in Austria’s success, Ms Mei-Pochtler said. A severe early outbreak in the ski-resort of Ischgl helped galvanise public opinion and meant stringent curbs on public life were widely and quickly adhered to. 

The government’s handling of the pandemic has not been entirely without criticism. The mishandling of the Ischgl outbreak is a sensitive political topic in Austria. A group of tourists is suing Austrian authorities for not taking earlier action.

Rows have also broken out over the government’s closure of parks in Vienna and the efficacy of a requirement for masks to be worn in shops. 

But overall, Mr Kurz’s government has been perceived to have done well, with his approval ratings at their highest ever level.

“The reaction of the Austrian population has been based on trust . . . we are a solidarity-based society,” Ms Mei-Pochtler said. More divided countries were more exposed, she believes. 

European governments will have to foster a sense of individual agency among their citizens in order to manage the crisis after lockdowns end, she said. “You need to create a sense now . . . of personal responsibility.”

She believes technology such as contract tracing apps will be vital and European societies might have to accept tools “on the borderline of the democratic working model”.

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The Austrian government is currently engaged in a heated discussion around the future rollout of “immunity certificates” for people confirmed to have Covid-19 antibodies, Ms Mei-Pochtler added. She supports their use: “You do not want to create a two-tier society . . . but you need to be clear about the risks.”

Ms Mei-Pochtler is also working on a plan to restart Austria’s tourism industry, which accounts for just under 10 per cent of GDP. The country is likely to open its borders in the coming weeks, the government has said.

Making the downloading and use of a contact-tracing app mandatory for access to the country is one option being considered to encourage visitors without endangering public health.

“This will be part of the new normal. Everyone will have an app. I think people will want to control themselves,” she said. “You cannot manage a pandemic top down forever. You need to manage it from the bottom up.”