Corona and migrants: The situation in Vienna

When lockdown is about not meeting other people, there is very little lockdown at Vienna's Brunnenmarkt.

The strollers lose themselves in the dense street market on Saturday. Because the sun is blinding, you step on each other’s heels. Tufts of coriander and letterless rivets lie on the pavement, with the mask over their larynx, sellers scoop beets from buckets and call out special prices for mutton and tripe on the market.

Vienna loves the Brunnenmarkt as a dependance of the foreign, these 500 meters are one of the most immigrant places in the city: Almost half of the people in the Ottakring district are of foreign origin.

At the Brunnenmarkt, stallholders from Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia and Nigeria in particular sell to customers from these countries. A visit to Brunnengasse is an easy world tour.

Now you can even escape the tough Easter lockdown here: An Iraqi says, “Brother, there is no Corona”, his face mask is soaked in pink fish waste. A Somali spice dealer has already paid three fines for not wearing his mask properly. The civil war is raging in his country, he says, and a respiratory infection does not frighten him.

On the crossing Thaliastraße, the one-euro and tattered shops are open for sale in the streets, the illegal slot machines are well frequented, on Yppenplatz, the other end of the market, hipsters get drunk without a care.

In many migrant quarters of this city, on Brunnenmarkt, on Favoritener Reumannplatz and on Reinprechtsdorfer Straße in Margareten, there is currently very little lockdown.

For months, the epidemiologists of Europe have noticed that people with a migration background are more likely to get Corona. For weeks there have been reports from hospital staff that a particularly large number of migrants need treatment in Vienna’s Covid stations. Since then, right-wing journalists and left-wing social scientists have been trying to find explanations for the vague thesis that there are no concrete figures on Corona and migrants in Austria.

A status report from the Ministry of Health has been revealed, which sorted all known Austrian Covid cases according to the nationality of the infected. The list is not complete: a good six percent of those infected are of “unknown nationality” according to the paper.

Many more have never noticed or reported their infection and therefore do not occur. And the table does not know any migrant background of infected people, only their citizenship.

Nevertheless, it reveals a lot about the sociology of the epidemic: 441,728 Austrians have so far been confirmed corona cases. Of the last 7.4 million residents, around six percent had detected infections. The likelihood of infection from foreigners is higher and it varies greatly according to citizenship. Germans, Bosnians and Chinese in the country are infected less often than Austrians, others more frequently: 8.46 percent of Afghans have already been corona cases, 9.15 percent of Kosovars and 10.82 percent of Turks in Austria. Around every ninth Turk in the country has already passed a positive PCR test, but just under every 17th Austrian.

The numbers are impressive, but how did they emerge?

Zabi Rafie comes from the Afghan capital Kabul, in 2016 he fled and came to Vienna. He moved into the former Strabag workers’ home on Donaustädter Polgarstrasse, where Volkshilfe is accommodating men who had fled.

Rafie lived in the room with one other and on the floor with 20 others, with shared kitchens and toilets. In his five years in the country he attended German courses and women’s rights workshops, played football on Saturdays and made friends. The first name “Zabi” means victim, he introduces himself with the last name.

Rafie doesn’t know where he got the virus, but he remembers exactly how he woke up with a high fever once in the fall. Rafie was positive, he was placed in quarantine for two weeks.

Where many people live together, there are many outbreaks of disease, in old people’s homes and in refugee homes: 24 infected residents in the Erdberg house of the Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund, 26 infected refugees in Innsbruck, 63 in Eisenstadt. Volkshilfe reports that 13 of 74 residents of the house on Polgarstrasse are infected – despite all the precautionary measures.

Not only refugees live in small spaces in Austria: in 2016, according to “Statistik Austria”, every person without a migration background had 49 square meters of living space to themselves, and everyone with a migration background 30 square meters. In 2019, according to the Austrian Integration Fund, women born in Germany gave birth to an average of 1.36 children, and 1.81 children born abroad. Larger families mean more close contacts.

Newcomers also work in a particularly system-relevant manner: every third non-academic nurse has a migration background, every third person on construction sites and in food factories is a foreigner, and around one in four in retail. Such professions do not allow home offices.

The Austrian socio-economy and the weak protection against infection in factories and their social rooms, in camps and canteens, are the most convincing explanations for the many infected migrants. But are there other reasons, cultural, linguistic or religious?

“I’m nothing in this country,” says Rafie as he scoured the ground for these words. Zabi Rafie is 25 years old, in Afghanistan he was a suit tailor, in Austria he is an asylum seeker who has been rejected in the first instance. “When I get to know someone, I have nothing to show. I don’t experience anything and I’m not allowed to work.” You probably feel less connected to the state and society.

His life is “limited”, he says, Afghans stay to themselves a lot. Friendships with compatriots get something like zest for life, such meetings have taken place in every lockdown, he says. Many acquaintances would “not really” stick to the rules. Because they barely understand the language, they inform each other about the virus, the laws and the vaccination. A lot is lost in the process. “I’m uneducated myself,” says Rafie, “but I don’t accept any nonsense.” In his home country, supporters of the religious Taliban movement taught him, in Austria he now contradicts pious friends who then call him incredulous.

Zabi Rafie also perceives faith as a problem in the fight against the pandemic. He kept hearing about Corona as a punishment for sinners, and if someone dies, it was God’s will. The chairman of the Albanian mosque in Menzelgasse, less than 50 meters from the Brunnenmarkt, says that he is only afraid of Allah and not of any virus.

Not only Muslims know this kind of trust in fate. After the Romanian-speaking confessional community “Pentecostal Church of God in Austria” met in Upper Austria in June, a total of 180 people were infected. After a palm consecration with hundreds of Christians in the Carinthian St. Leonhard, the seven-day Covid incidence there has skyrocketed to 1150. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews disregarded the state’s corona rules last year and caused large clusters in some cases.

The Serbian woman on the bench at Reumannplatz always has her Bible in her handbag. Whoever obeys the Ten Commandments will be spared from epidemics, she says, so it is written in the Proverbs of the Old Testament, chapter four. The person sitting next to her agrees that the excitement about the virus is exaggerated.

She also comes from Serbia. Her compatriots always distrust the words of those in power, she says, because they grew up under such brutal politics. The woman cares for old Viennese professionally, and their loneliness is the worse plague. And then she pulls out her smartphone as if to prove it.

With the pandemic, billionaires would cram their pockets and wipe out the middle class, explains the woman. And the middle class, that’s it. She exchanges ideas with Serbian speakers on Facebook and in chats. In sight, right at the Reumannplatz U1 station, a Croatian interior cleaner continues the thought: Bill Gates made good money from this disease he says, before reading Croatian-language news websites from the screen.

With these two people, the certainty about conspiracy myths seems as great as the skepticism about anything official. Is there perhaps such a thing as an information crisis among people who speak foreign languages ​​in this pandemic?

Even native speakers lose track of the many regulations and strategies, the state of research and contradicting news. In Telegram groups and during demonstrations, people who played down the corona in all federal states put their messages up. Trade in half-truths is flourishing on the Internet, and even more so among migrants.

In winter, a team led by political scientist Peter Filzmaier researched the corona information behavior of 1,518 people for the Austrian Integration Fund. The study compared respondents with roots in former Yugoslavia, Syria and Afghanistan with a control group without a migration background. The results differ widely:

On a ten-point scale, Austrians rate their level of information on the pandemic with 7.87 points, first-generation Turks give themselves 5.75 points, and Afghans rate their knowledge with 0.88 points.

The tendency towards conspiracy myths fits in with this: Ten percent of the autochthons are convinced that the virus is artificially produced, with Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian people it is 28 percent, with Turks 34 percent, with Afghans even 70 percent. 70 to 80 percent of Syrians and Afghans consider the pandemic policy to be excessive, compared to only 28 percent among the autochthons.

It is in the interest of the state to inform all residents about the virus in their languages ​​and to take them with them in the exhausting battle. Anyone who confronts the speakers of the Austrian Integration Fund with deficiencies should have time for a torrent of speech: In fact, this institution of the republic has been communicating with each other since the beginning of the pandemic:

A dedicated website provides information on the current regulations in 17 languages. The integration fund runs advertising campaigns in migrant media and sends newsletters to the communities. The state operates a multilingual Covid-19 hotline and offers free online consultations with doctors and interpreters every weekday.

The problem: Many migrants don’t seem to know anything about any of this. The Integration Fund website with the translated ordinances has had 480,000 hits so far, but the counting started more than a year ago. So there are a little more than 2000 hits per month from all over the country and language offered.

The state threatens to lose the competition for attention. Just a few weeks ago, Integration Minister Susanne Raab (ÖVP) announced a new “information offensive” as a result of the study cited, with testimonials to promote vaccination in social media videos. Because that was also reality:

Social networks are much more important sources for migrants than for non-migrants. And it is precisely on these platforms that a kind of information battle has been going on in the diaspora for a year.

“Sometimes I feel like a full-time fact checker for the Arabic-language Facebook,” says a Social Democrat with Arabic roots, he looks tired. In the meantime, he is “losing patience” with myths and conspiracy theories.

For over a year he has been posting infection numbers and rules of conduct on social media and translating science journalism into Arabic. The comments under the postings are his mood barometer.

“The second wave in autumn was a turning point.” At that time, many migrants were sick, “now hardly anyone denies the virus, but horror stories are circulating about vaccination”. The disinformation campaigns propagated by the media and bloggers from some home countries help.

But why does the diaspora also succumb to the confused theses? “A lot of people live in a feeling of powerlessness,” and on social media they encourage each other that the world has always made a fool of them. Those who fled the war are less shocked by full hospitals, “Great powers have driven people from their homeland, even now nothing is going on in the immediate vicinity”. The politician is doing his best to gain trust in science, the media and the state. Its tasks are now partly outsourced to private community connectors.

At the taxi rank next to the Brunnenmarkt almost everyone knows Sayed Ahmed. “An honest person” is that, “the mayor of the Egyptians in Vienna”. And then he appears in person: the car freshly washed, a carpet and his divorce papers on the dashboard and his sharpest weapons on the passenger seat: the Kronen Zeitung, Kurier, Die Presse and his tablet.

Sayed Ahmed came to Vienna from Cairo in 1980, has seven children and has been driving taxis since 1996.

Between the taxi rides, Ahmed taps interesting facts into his Facebook account, and his iPad is now a mini news agency for Viennese of Arab origin: every few days he summarizes the 30 most important reports from the newspapers for his 5,000 friends and shares them in many diaspora Facebook groups.

More than 10,000 people in Austria read Ahmed’s news bulletins. “Many are also lazy,” says Sayed Ahmed, or they don’t have a head to learn German and stay up to date. “Politicians have to recognize those people.”

Now his Facebook friends are asking him whether they can visit the family in lockdown or have to wear masks in cars. Most often the Arabic word for “thank you” is used in his postings.

Sayed Ahmed tries to educate people on the tablet as well as in the taxi, he earns 125 instead of 250 euros per lockdown working day. He currently brings many passengers to vaccination appointments or to house parties on weekends. When they cuddle in his back seat, he complains that some of the taxi drivers got infected while they were working. Ahmed wants to explain to his Viennese world how serious the matter is.

Incidentally, despite his diabetes, he has not yet registered for the corona vaccination. He says he does not yet know how certain the sting is.

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