Perhaps you have been checking the John Hopkins Covid-19 Map daily to see where we are—the world, your country, your own county. I do the same, but since I am a citizen of two countries—the U.S. and Austria—I check both. In part, I do so because I have a smattering of relatives abroad.
But increasingly I also watch with a sense of Washington’s possible future. Nearly two months into some level of quarantine, we’re all anxious to know how and when we might open up safely. Aside from some hikes, the answer is “not yet.” But on April 14, after successfully flattening its curve, Austria was among the first European countries to ease restrictions, allowing public parks and small shops (up to 400 square meters) to reopen with occupancy limits. Some have chastised conservative chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s move, saying it puts the economy before safety. A health economist told the Independent it’s “immensely dangerous.” So far, the country hasn't seen a spike in cases, so it plans to continue loosening the lockdown, in two week increments: Hair salons and larger stores can return on May 1; restaurants, museums, and places of worship on May 15. (Some places, like a couple of Vienna museums, have already deferred until summer.)
I’ll be watching this reopening with added fascination: Austria has emerged as an interesting cognate for Washington State. My grandparents moved here in the 1970s, seeing some alpine echoes: Both regions sit on the 47th parallel, with serrated mountains and a certain social austerity. They now have similar populations: 8.9 million in Austria, 7.6 million here. Each contains one larger city and a smattering of smaller ones.
Due to an outbreak in a ski village, Austria also became an early epicenter on its continent. The country locked down on March 16, just as Inslee closed our restaurants. As of this morning, Washington has 14,070 confirmed cases and 801 deaths. Austria has 15,452 cases and 584 deaths. Austria’s restrictions were a degree firmer than ours, though not as intense as those in regions of China. Masks, for instance, remain a requirement not a suggestion as they are here.
There are other, more significant differences. One is the testing disparity: around 180,000 tests conducted here, around 250,000 there. Kurz claimed the country can test about 10,000 a day (as of Tuesday, KUOW reported we can do about 4,000). Austria also can and did control its borders, while our state borders remain permeable. It is significantly denser than this state in city planning and overall land (it’s less than half our size). Its coronavirus curve was sharper, both the spike and the decline. Yesterday, the country announced only 34 cases compared with our 228.
Picking a region to watch may be more superstition than science, a story to tell ourselves about a future we do not know. While this pandemic is global, its range of effects are intensely local. You could watch Wuhan. A coworker mentioned she’d been tracking Germany’s response. Oktoberfest’s cancellation appeared a harbinger of an autumn without big events. But while so many of us are caught in a strange pause, there’s something stabilizing, and terrifying, about watching others press play.