A 30-year-old Irishman that arrived back in Vienna last weekend for an international trip to a no-risk country discovered twenty-four hours later that he had a fever. Together with the symptoms of a cold, and having just finished a three-hour flight with various international travellers, he wanted to rule out the risk that it was the coronavirus.
The Vienna city council runs a 24-hour hotline for somebody who is worried they might be infected, and so he rang the number,1450.
After thirty minutes, somebody finally answered, he explained the problem and was told: “I’m sorry, we are only for German-speaking peoples.”
And that was that. Worried he might be infected and spread the condition to others, he then discovered that local chemists had long ago sold out of masks.
Not speaking German, it’s then that people like him and others realise this really is a foreign country.
I have spent the last three months running a news agency covering China, I am living in Vienna, and this guide was put together for other people living here based on the knowledge gathered from reporting about China and how they handled the conditions, as well as from speaking to doctors and medical experts to let you know about getting through the corona virus shut down in Austria.
Much of what you need to know is available on the Internet, yet when it comes down to it, and you try and adapt that to local circumstances, as the Irish expat with a fever last weekend discovered, putting learning into practice is not always easy.
First of all, keep informed, and even though it’s written in German, you can still easily read all of the articles here by viewing them in Google Chrome, which instantly translates into English to a very high standard making almost everything understandable.
For those who have not been using Google translate to get your news, in summary, Austria has woken up to the fact that the coronavirus is spreading fast, and with the government justifiably worried about the pressure of suddenly being confronted with thousands suffering from severe flulike symptoms, they have started locking down parts of the country.
Ski resorts from Voralberg through Salzburg and down to Tirol have closed, tourists are being sent home, in the capital museums and even the country’s biggest tourist attraction, Schoenbrunn Palace, has closed.
What the government is trying to do with the lockdown is to prevent people having contact with each other and spreading the virus, statistics show at the moment that every infected person is infecting almost 2 other people in Austria. The whole strategy now the government is to get people to stay at home, to stop infection rates spiralling out of control, and the health service collapsing under the pressure.
A lot of it seems contradictory, why for example shut down the opera but leave the underground running? Unfortunately Austria doesn’t have the advantage that China does simply having to do everything that the government says, and clearly other considerations in Austria are preventing every message being introduced that would be ideal however painful.
Nevertheless, everybody can learn from the Chinese who not only contains the coronavirus within three months but is now in a position where they are starting to help the rest of the world.
We can all learn from that, and after consulting on the Chinese strategy with local experts, the following advice is prudent to consider.
1/ Stay Home. First and foremost priority is to avoid catching it in the first place, and that means avoiding contact with anyone outside of your home.
Schools are supposed to close next Wednesday, but in practice many schools have already taken it into their own hands and even today (Friday) were urging pupils to stay home. From Monday, it’s unlikely that many pupils will be attending those schools that do open.
Austrian companies are being given subsidies to close or allow people to stay home, and employees who take time off especially when caring for young children can also access those subsidies.
If you have to go to work, avoid the underground. Take a scooter, or cycle or if possible walk. The coronavirus is a respiratory virus, it can spread by contact but it can also spread in the air. Every time somebody coughs, if they have the virus, they risk giving it to the person next to them.
Governments have explained that the facemask is not highly effective in preventing an infection, but it is highly effective at stopping those with the disease from spreading it to others. Unfortunately facemasks which were widely available in China to stop infected people passing on to others are not available here in Austria, which makes it doubly important to stay away from others as much as possible.
Again the emphasis is on stay home. If your employer can make it possible for you to work from home, take the opportunity.
If you have to go out, try and avoid other people with a distance of around 2m. Clearly this is not possible in a crowded supermarket, but the fact is that an infected person coughing will send out particles which will fall to the ground and if you keep the space of around 2m, the risk of infection is greatly reduced.
2/ Stay Clean: if you are lucky enough to be able to stay home, you are still going to need to go out to the shops to get supplies. In China each household was given a pass to allow one person only to do the shopping. Those who did not have a pass had to stay at home. This discipline should be included here even if you are the one enforcing it on your home.
If you go out try to get everything in one go, and if you miss anything do without. When you get home, it is not enough just to wash your hands. Medical staff I have spoken to in Austria say that they are changing their clothes when they walk through the door, and having a shower. It’s the only way to get all traces of the virus which will be sticking to the skin and the clothing out of the way and to stop the risk of infecting yourself or anyone else in the household.
During the day, avoid touching your face and try and avoid touching any surfaces outside your home that you do not have two. Handrails on the escalator for example. Wash your hands as often as possible even with soap and water is more than enough to make a significant difference.
3/ Stay Prepared. Don’t just take steps to minimise exposure, you also need to take steps to maximise resistance. Even if you get it, a fit person will get through it better than someone who has not taken the proper steps.
Eat healthily, have a diet with lots of vitamin C such as orange juice and if not available take vitamins C and multivitamin supplements.
Zinc is readily available at the chemist here and strengthens the immune system, and the other advice is to get plenty of sleep, avoid alcohol and cigarettes, and do exercise. The latter is not easy in a flat, but there are still plenty of YouTube videos that can show you how to work out at home.
4/ If You think you are infected. Calling the hotline if you are English-speaking and don’t speak German seems to be a waste of time, even when you do speak German, as I did on the behalf of the Irish man who recently returned to Vienna. The first question was whether we had been to the doctors yet. Given that this is exactly in contradiction with the official line, and if unwell the last thing you could do is visit the doctor, this was not very helpful.
If you don’t have severe symptoms, the best step is to get someone to visit the chemist for you. Unlike some countries, Austrian chemists are highly trained and can offer expert advice. Having access to professional advice from a chemist who also nearly always speaks English or has a staff member that does will be enormously reassuring. You might not be allowed to visit the doctors, but you can visit the chemists, and there are certain essentials that you should not go home without.
It’s also worth mentioning that Austria has a 24-hour chemist service which is easily available by downloading the “Apotheke” App online and looking for the duty chemist, you pay a small extra charge for the night service, and otherwise it’s the regular prices that you would pay during the day.
Make sure to go home with the following:
Nose spray. Many people suffering from the condition have difficulty breathing and no spray to widen the airwaves is an essential.
Cough medicine. This needs no explanation.
Throat syrup. A sore throat is a common complaint as well among victims, and if you cannot get throat lozenges or similar from the chemist, a fluoride mouthwash used to gargle can also help.
Fever reduction. In Austria the most common method is Ibuprofen but the WHO advises against it for COVID and suggests paracetamol. These are readily available at the chemists.
When visiting the chemists, treat them with respect. Make it clear that you have a fever, they will ask you to keep your distance, and will know what is best of the medicines available to match your symptoms just like the doctor.
Make sure you take a credit card or bank card, chemists are trying to avoid handling money especially from suspected infected people, and you will need to pay for it with a card to avoid the risk of spreading the condition.
If you are paying for anything try to avoid doing so in a way that you need to get change, ideally if it’s only a small amount, let them keep the change. In China, the banks were disinfecting money and quarantining it before putting it back into circulation. I’m not aware of people even being warned of the risk of money yet in Austria.
Once stocked up with medicines, you need plenty of rest.
Also in China, people quarantined who were showing no symptoms were encouraged to do very light exercise, compared to conventional wisdom here that says energy needs to be preserved to fight the disease. It seems the Chinese reserved the exercise suggestion for those who really seem to be exhibiting no symptoms. It also expected all of them to watch lots of positive television programmes in order to keep their mood up, with comedy shows particularly popular.
There is no cure for the coronavirus, but catching it does not mean a death sentence. It is important to keep that in mind and not panic. Yes it can be dangerous particular for those in the at risk groups, but for most people it’s not a death sentence. And most expats living here are not retired, they are people working in jobs and for the most part are fit and healthy.
If you have been to the local English-speaking church here, you don’t see very many old people who are using the staple of any church congregation back home. Instead it’s families and parents. These are the people regarded as least at risk.
Panicking and worrying can have a major impact on how successful all of us are in recovering from the virus, and in particular for those who are not severely ill but still have some of the symptoms. Keeping distracted and not pondering on worst case scenarios is a vital strategy.
It does not look likely that the arrival of warm weather is making much difference to the spread of the coronavirus in Austria, I have spoken to several medics who seem to feel this is no longer a hope, and a vaccine despite some wild press headlines is probably not likely before the end of the year if that. But there is a lot as you can see above that you can do to minimise risk or minimise the damage if you get it in the first place, even as an expat living abroad.
If symptoms really worsen, only then will you need to call the emergency services. Austria has already been making space available for people with the more serious symptoms which most people do not develop. These preparations will continue to expand, and if everybody can take responsibility for their own actions and limit their exposure, we will be doing our part to help them stay ahead of the game.
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