“We have to take the food out of the virus”

A sharp lockdown is currently in effect in Austria. Most stores are closed and churches are only open for those praying. The Viennese theologian and medical ethicist Matthias Beck thinks this is right. For two specific reasons.

Interviewer: At the beginning of the second lockdown in Austria, you started the video blog "Corona Thoughts". Before we get right into the impulses there. Austria has a very strict lockdown right now – how do you feel personally?

Prof. Matthias Beck (theologian and medical ethicist, University of Vienna): I personally feel very well. Only I must say that I also have a privileged situation. I am a professor at the university. We only have online lectures. Tonight I have four hours of seminar online again. I have a very nice apartment here in the middle of Vienna. After all, I am a priest in a parish. Well, I do not suffer much. I can write articles on the side.

Otherwise you are right, it is a sharp lockdown. Basically 24 hour curfew. That sounds so brutal. But of course you can buy something. One can go for a walk, one can ride a bike. You don’t actually feel it that much. I think that other people suffer more.

But my impression is that everything is relatively quiet in Austria. The country is also much smaller than Germany. People put up with it. They also understand it. In the blog, even in a sermon on Sunday, I once also presented this, theologically classified. So I personally am fine.

Interviewer: Do you think people in Austria are more relaxed about the situation? Now in the second lockdown, too?

Beck: Such demonstrations as there were in Berlin do not exist here, as far as I can see. The Austrians are altogether somewhat calmer, somewhat more relaxed. The people probably suffer the most from the lack of cafe culture. If I’m out walking for an hour and I happen to meet someone, in the past I would have said, "Come on, let’s go for a coffee and discuss the situation." But there is no cafe. All the cafes are closed. Everything is really closed. Except for the stores where you can buy something to eat and maybe drugstores. That is already very burdensome. But I don’t have the impression that there is a lot of unrest and excitement here now.

Interviewer: Let’s take a look at your blog: There are everyday impulses. Keyword: Dealing with the situation right now. What tips can you give?

Beck: First of all, I make myself a bit unpopular with some churchgoers by saying that it is reasonable that there are no public church services. The churches are open for worshippers and we can celebrate Mass with small groups of up to ten people, when the church is then closed off. That has excited many.

Why can’t the church stay open for services? There I made the following argumentation: First of all it is reasonable. There is a theological phrase: "Grace presupposes nature, and that is man’s reason and nature." It is reasonable to keep a distance, because otherwise we can not fight the virus.

Secondly, it is in solidarity with the people if the churches also remain "closed". So the places of worship are open, but there are no public services, so that we all pull together here. This would be such an impulse.

Then I also offer spiritual impulses, that I say: Maybe you are lonely now, maybe you are older. One thing you can always do, pray. Or if you can’t pray because you don’t know how, read the Psalms. This is great literature. That is very comforting. That’s when man cries out to God.

I keep trying to interpret the gospel of the day, so to speak. Yesterday it was very brutal but also almost true. There will be plagues and famines. Today it says, "they will hate you, the Christians.". But at the end it is always said "nothing will happen to you". That is, the comforting message is always what should come across to the people in the end.

Interviewer: Now, this Wednesday in Germany, the important decision will be made on how to proceed with the Corona protection measures. What do you advise? Grit your teeth and get through it and accept it as it is then.

Beck: So gritting my teeth would be too brutal for me. I am quite well informed by the German television. I think that 14 days have been wasted because the prime ministers could not reach an agreement. If you had cracked down 14 days ago, you could loosen it more at Christmas. I hope very much that the humans can celebrate at least a little Christmas. If at all, then we should now take another hard line, 14 days, three weeks, and then perhaps bring the numbers down. There is no other way.

I have also explained this medically to the people here in Austria. We don’t have a vaccine, we don’t have a medicine. We must deprive the virus of its nourishment. The virus is happy about every person it can jump to, "something to feed", so to speak. If we deprive it of food, it dies. This is the only way to get at this virus, so to speak, by depriving it of nourishment. And that means: keep your distance, put on a mask, wash your hands, air the room.

But it must not be that everything comes to a standstill. Of course, the police must be able to work and the stores must be open. The harder they crack down now for another three weeks, the sooner there will be a possibility to open something for Christmas. If we don’t do that, it will drag on until February, March. It will always go on. The virus will not go away, we must deprive it of nourishment.

So for me it would be clear. I support Mrs. Merkel very much there. I don’t want to make party politics here, but the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also wanted to take more action, but he couldn’t quite get his way either. Now we have it down here like this and I think it’s good. Even sharper said: There is no other alternative.

Interviewer: If people would like to take your impulses from Austria with them, where can they find them??

Beck: You can find this in my blog, it’s called catholic.at/videoblog/corona-thoughts – there you can hear the daily message.

The interview was conducted by Carsten Dopp.

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