Monday Postcard #141 – Bread and Circuses
What a night – I woke up at around 2 am and was unable to go back to sleep. I tried to read, I walked around. I tried to see the comet Neowise (my nightly research said at around 3 am was the perfect time – what a coincidence) but was not successful. I kept tossing around in bed, made some notes for this postcard and finally fell asleep at 4.30.
I usually never struggle with my sleep. It may sound spiritual but around a full or new moon, I tend to have crazy dreams. But recently, I have been having many of these sleepless nights. I talked to my friends – some of them struggle with the same, others are in a strange mood all the time. Most of them attributed it to the impact of the pandemic on our daily lives.
I do think that the pandemic, and naturally the worries we all have about it, is one factor preventing me from sleeping. But last night I realised that my lack of sleep is due to something more than “just” the pandemic. It stems from developments of our society which I have been criticising for years. The current pandemic and the measures taken seemed to have made them more visible.
(Before I go into more detail, I would like to emphasise that I believe that Covid-19 is more than just a “normal flu” and that it is necessary to take measures. Just to put it out there, as some may say I accuse me of playing down the disease.)
Over the past weeks, I have been observing some very worrying developments. When Austria decided to open up the country after a two-month lockdown, the priorities seemed to be opening up restaurants and bars, shopping, letting the national soccer league play again and tell Austrians to spend their summer holidays in Austria because “home is the best place anyways”. (I wrote about this in Postcard #133.)
Our government and the European Union have been pumping (or at least announced to pump) billions into our economies. In Austria, we currently have over 400,000 people in the “Kurzarbeit”-programme of the government (at its peak, the number hit 1.3 million). When a company applies for this “short-time working” programme, the working time has to be between 10-90% and the employees will keep receiving 80%-90% of their salaries. The government compensates the companies at a later stage.
In theory, this programme sounds great – not only does it prevent mass unemployment but it also allows that people keep their income and, hence, spend money and invest it back into our economy. The programme has been extended until the end of September – many people are worried of potential unemployment after that deadline.
A flipside of this programme was that many people suddenly had a lot of free-time. It resulted in our lakes, mountains and popular tourist attractions to crowd up. The paradox in my opinion was that all of the “fun activities” were OK; there were social distancing measures but it was considered less “dangerous” than children going back to school in a regular way, going to work or opening the borders, because “then we get a second wave”. Parents who did not know how to entertain their children after weeks of distance learning, of course, resorted to taking them to the lake or shopping. Austrians somehow had to pass their days. From a personal perspective, I cannot even blame anyone. But it resulted in an environment which seems to be solely based on pleasure.
I have been hearing things like: “I was in short-time working for almost four months, now we went on holidays for a few days and it’s sh** because now I have to go back to work again. But mostly of it is home office.”(Insert the winking smiley face.) I did not hear this only once or twice. This attitude to work was reflected across several age groups, job types and education backgrounds.
At the same time, the media seem to have adopted a uniform way of reporting – most of it is conform to what our government has to say. And a lot of it, I realised, is based on limited or even a lack of research.
Just an example: our Nationalrat (National Council) has adopted a resolution by the Neos party which asked that partners who are not married can see each other. Just to give you an overview of the situation: if you and your partner are currently apart, one is in a EU-country, the other one outside of the EU and a non-EU-citizen, you cannot see each other. If you were married, you could. (Note: I am writing from the Austrian perspective here, the visa regulations are a national responsibility of each EU member state.) Non-EU-citizens, most of the time, have to apply for visas to enter the Schengen area. Due to Covid-19, the visa services of the Austrian embassies has been suspended since the beginning of the lockdown.
The proposal was adopted by the Nationalrat on July 9th. On the 17th, the ORF (the Austrian broadcasting company) applauded Austria on their website for being a first-mover alongside the Czech Republic. At the same day, when I checked the websites of the Austrian embassies abroad (e.g. the Austrian embassy in Bangkok), there were no updates. Which means, until now, non-EU-partners can still not apply for a visa. So where did the news come from? Have the journalists even bothered doing some research? It has been adopted but still has not been implemented.
And to clarify another thing, because I get repeatedly asked why my partner has not come to Austria to “spend his holidays with me”: Austria has not adopted the list of recommended countries by the EU. (On 30 June, the Council of the European Union published a list of non-EU-countries which are considered save to travel to and from.) To my knowledge, the media have not covered that Austria is among the few countries not adopting this list. (The Germans adopted it right after the publication and started to give out Schengen visa.) The Austrian media criticised Hungary for not following the list, but never mentioned once that obviously, we do not follow it until 30 September 2020 and are issuing neither tourist nor business visas.
I know this is a very specific, detailed and probably complicated example but I chose it to illustrate a major thing I criticise at the moment: when I raise my voice about it that policies are not OK and that I see a uniform way of journalism, I am told to “calm down and be patient” (by people who have basically returned to their normal life), not to be “so critical” (sic!) and “think about our health first”. Furthermore, the fact that the media seem to lack thorough research is downplayed as well.
Firstly, regarding the health perspective: those who know me personally know how seriously I take this pandemic and the measures. Secondly, we have rising infections also in Austria. I recently went to a nearby lake in the evening and saw people partying like crazy. Girls on hen’s nights walking around with tasks such as painting the nails of strangers or hugging them. Nobody was social distancing, people were dancing and sharing glasses. All of this is possible, but it is not possible that people from countries with the same or even lower infection rates come here to see their partners or travel for work? Or that (Austrian) companies who operate internationally can get visas for their staff to fulfil contracts? Common sense and self-responsibility seem to have been lost completely.
Thirdly, it shocks me that we have become so selfish. “As long as my life is not affected, I don’t care if my neighbour is OK.” People do not even want to try to put themselves into somebody else’s shoes. And it seems that the majority of people want to be entertained and have fun. Developments away from our democratic values are brushed off or not even noticed.
Austria has reached our high standard of living because of a system of solidarity: everybody is contributing so that we can have this great system of universal access to healthcare, education and government support. But if we keep only taking what we think we are entitled to and do not give back, this system will collapse. The billions which we need to pump into our economies need to come from somewhere. If nobody wants to work anymore, who is going to pay?
The Roman poet Juvenal coined the term “Bread and Circuses” – in a political context it means creating public approval not because of the excellence of actions taken but by diversion. “Keep people happy and stop them from noticing or complaining about problems.” (According to the Cambridge Dictionary)
Those who do not participate in the “diversion party”, are ignored, being given weird looks or criticised. Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our democracy. I have the feeling that in the name of fighting the pandemic, it is not deemed acceptable to criticise and question certain moves.
I am well aware that today’s Postcard is very critical and, probably, polarising. For weeks I have been rather silent. But I personally find some developments very dangerous and I wanted to say that we have to be alert. Alert when it comes to another rise in infections but also alert about the “pandemic of stopping to think critically”.
I look forward to hearing your views and also what is going on in your respective countries. Have a great week ahead!