Austrian ski region global hotspot for epidemic
Europe is under siege. But in the village of Ischgl, Austria, high in the Paznaun valley, the situation is particularly stark: the resort famous for its skiing is under total lockdown.
For the past week, Austrians caught in the area on holiday have not been permitted to leave. Police man checkpoints in and out of town. Only foreign citizens who have acquired a special pass have been permitted to cross and return to their home countries.
The Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, a leading centre for epidemiological research, has named the Austrian region of Tyrol as one of the ten highest-risk areas globally, alongside Wuhan, northern Italy and Iran. The village of Ischgl, which has a permanent population of just 1,500 people, is at the very centre of the region’s outbreak.
Hundreds of people across Europe have contracted the virus in this valley between the Arlberg and Silvretta massifs. This has put it in the eye of a political storm, amid accusations that local authorities were slow to act for fear of hurting business at one of the busiest times of the year.
The cluster has become a stark illustration of the degree to which any cordon sanitaire is only as effective as its weakest part. Anger is growing. “The Breeding Ground” read a headline in Germany’s Der Spiegel news magazine on Tuesday, asking just how many Germans had contracted the virus in Tyrol and unknowingly brought it home, thanks to its neighbours’ lack of care.
Health authorities have traced dozens of cases in Germany to Ischgl, though they have yet to make any public statement on the subject. Half of all of Norway’s confirmed cases, one-third of all of those in Denmark and one-sixth of those in Sweden were contracted in the tiny resort.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s rigorous and swift crackdown had put his government at the forefront of European effort against the pandemic. Austria has so far confirmed 1471 cases of the novel coronavirus. But while Vienna, a densely packed city of 2m, has just 180 cases, Tyrol, the mountainous and rural eastern region, home to 751,000 Austrians, where Ischgl is found, has 352. In Austria’s federalised structure, health is devolved to regional governments.
So far, local authorities in Tyrol have been defiant about their handling of the situation. “The authorities did everything right,” said Bernhard Tilg, of the region’s governing conservative Peoples’ Party in an interview with Austria’s state broadcaster. “Everything happened correctly in the right chronological order.” In reality, said Thomas Hofer, a Vienna-based political analyst: “It was a very very slow response.”
“Right up until last week, there were pictures and clips on TV of the resort crammed with people celebrating on terraces, partying like nothing had happened,” Mr Hofer notes. As early as March 5, the Icelandic government designated the alpine village a high risk area — alongside Iran, Italy, China and South Korea.
Even when a member of the bartending staff at one of Ischgl’s most crowded party venues, the Kitzloch bar, tested positive for the virus, authorities insisted the risk of transmission in public spaces, even bars, was slight. Fifteen Icelanders who fell ill with the virus had been drinking at the Kitzloch, it later emerged.
In a statement, the state of Tyrol said it “rejects the criticism that measures were taken too late to contain the coronavirus”. In the early days of the outbreak, many, not unreasonably, believed infections were likeliest to have occurred on aeroplanes and in airports.
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That ski resorts in the Alps should be hotbeds is, in retrospect, hardly surprising: skiers tend to be highly travelled and resorts bring together unusual clusters of people in multifamily chalets and warm mountain restaurants. Most are also staffed by seasonal workers, often living in shared accommodation. In Arlberg, many of the receptionists, bartenders and waiting staff come from northern Italy.
Many accuse Tyrol’s government of putting economic interests above those of public health. The winter sports economy, which draws 600,000 tourists annually, is vital for the region. Criticism has come from across the spectrum. “Who in the regional government will have the character and integrity to admit they have created a massive shitshow here,” asked MEP Claudia Gamon of the liberal Neos on Twitter. “Greed and irresponsibility leave their mark,” said Karin Kneissl, the former foreign minister nominated by the far-right Freedom Party.
So far Mr Kurz has maintained public unity, with officials close to the chancellery stressing that singling out an individual village or region helps no one. The crisis in Tyrol nevertheless plays into an existing political divide in Austria: the so-called “Western alliance” of conservative states — Vorarlberg, Tyrol and Salzburg — has long been resistant to Mr Kurz’s modernising agenda.
Ischgl, a village which only days ago was thronged with partying skiers and snowboarders is all but deserted. Marooned guests take meals in their hotel rooms, with only their televisions for company.
There may yet be further infections traced to Ischgl. When the shutdown was finally announced last Saturday, residents recount chaotic scenes. Hundreds of foreign tourists crowded on to buses to take them down the mountain home. None were tested. Many spent the next evening in hotels in the regional city of Innsbruck. No instructions for isolation were given.