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Red Cross in the COVID-19 pandemic – how Austria handled the outbreak

When the first Corona cases occurred on the 25th of February 2020, alarm bells rang in the republic of Austria – and the government quickly contacted the Austrian Red Cross for help and support in managing the crisis. Austrian Red Cross is a big, nationwide organization with lots of experience in disaster management and emergency relief – with around 8.600 staff and over 72.000 volunteers. The organization, therefore, played an important role in the nationwide Covid-Response since the beginning of the Corona pandemic. Austrian Red Cross really fulfilled its auxiliary role to the government in this pandemic, helping in various fields. A role that in this disaster really became visible to the public.

Within one year, the Austrian Red Cross (AutRC) has performed more than 2,8 million Corona-Tests in Drive-Ins and with mobile teams and in Mai of 2021 was still running more than 100 test centres. AutRC has transported 100.000 infected persons in the first year, while the normal nationwide rescue services had to be continued under strict safety measures. For comparison: AutRC has around 4.500 people on duty in the regular rescue and ambulance service every day. In April 2021 there were still additional 1.500 people in action against COVID-19. As in some federal states, the Austrian Red Cross is also running emergency hotlines more than 800.000 calls were answered at the hotline 1450, where people could call in case of Corona symptoms. In Upper Austria for example volunteers and students of medicine helped to manage the huge workload.

In addition to that AutRC has provided the government with expertise in pandemic management:

  • Contributing with its expertise to the national crisis and disaster management board.
  • Helping to build up new structures for decision making in the Ministry Of Health.
  • As the first organization in Europe, AutRC developed an application for contact tracing – the Stopp Corona App – with partners, that is still in use and has been downloaded by more than 1,4 million Austrians.
  • AutRC also stepped in with its logistics experts to buy protective equipment on the world market in the first phase of the pandemic. Until the end of 2020, for example, more than 18 million FFP2-masks were ordered for the state to be distributed in Austria.
  • AutRC created and produced a public information campaign about COVID-19-measures – and coined the image of a baby elephant that is needed between individuals to maintain a safe distance – and hygiene, which was endorsed by the government and is now contributing to a vaccination campaign.

Then there are numerous other areas the Red Cross is engaged in, where the work had to be adapted to the new Corona Restrictions: The so-called Team Österreich Tafel for example, where volunteers collect food from supermarkets, that otherwise would be thrown away, to distribute it to people in need. Austrian Red Cross is also engaged in teaching programs for kids and young people that need support so they can stay in school. AutRC managed to help 3.000 Kids during the pandemic. Our blood donation services collected more than 600 blood donations with antibodies from corona-survivors to be used for Corona therapy in hospitals. At Team Austria, where you can apply through an App, we registered 26.000 new members, ready to provide help when needed. For example, in doing the shopping for people in quarantine and other tasks.

In the aftermath of the crisis, the nine branches of the Austrian Red Cross keep supporting authorities with various tasks. Viennese Red Cross for example offers courses for the members of companies to be educated as COVID-19-managers, being able to develop safety concepts for their workplaces. 8.000 people completed the course in 2020 alone.

How did the health personal do in one year of pandemic response in Austria? Of course, also the staff of AutRC was affected by Corona, but infections occurred in private life, not during service. As you can imagine with all the protective gear and high safety measures people were safe during work. What AutRC did was, to call staff in quarantine and help them, if needed. There are around 700 people engaging in a peer system for internal support of Red Cross staff and volunteers. This kind of support was highly welcome during the crisis. People for example were afraid to spread the virus inside their families. “The duration and the size of AutRC´s commitment of course was challenging, but we managed thanks to extensive training, good contacts and thousands of volunteers that keep us running in difficult times”, says Michael Opriesnig, Secretary General of the Austrian Red Cross.

Author: Stefan Müller, Austrian Red Cross


Photo credit: Österreichisches Rotes Kreuz (ÖRK) / Bogna Bylica