(Red) Cross Purposes

The strength of the legendary aid organization is its iron clad neutrality. In the overlapping alliances of Austrian party politics, this is looking badly compromised.

The Red Cross was born on the bloody battlefield of Solferino. In several days of fighting in June 1859 Napoleon’s armies clashed with imperial Austria’s forces defending their northern Italian possessions. Around 30,000 men died, many more were left maimed and wounded. A Swiss businessman, Henri Dunant, was so horrified by what he saw that he dedicated his life to creating an organization independent of any government that would care for the suffering, regardless of their beliefs, politics or other factors. No good guys, no bad guys, just people in need of help. To this day, the Red Cross does not take sides, it never criticizes governments, warlords, or ethnic cleansers. That is why, almost alone among NGOs, it gains access to any humanitarian crisis, going in to help where others cannot.

And that is also why it became a sensitive issue when the Austrian Red Cross came under fire for its close political affiliation with the Austrian center-right governing party, the ÖVP.

Recent ÖVP politicians

“Red Cross on turquoise ground” (the ÖVP’s color branding) announced the center-left daily Der Standard April 14. The paper’s political attack dog Fabian Schmid spelled it out: Several power players in the Austrian Red Cross organization are recent ÖVP politicians (or top managers in the Raiffeisen bank, politically aligned to the ÖVP), and Red Cross Commander Gerry Foitik, appears regularly on stage for ministerial press conferences. 

“You could be forgiven for thinking that he was a member of the government,” wrote Schmid. A second photo of RC General Michael Opriesnig, standing in full rescue kit behind Agriculture Minister Elisabeth Köstinger underlined the point. The Red Cross was in fact responsible for the government’s main anti-Corona advertising campaign “Schau auf dich, schau auf mich” (Look after yourself, look after me) and for the development of the “Stopp Corona” surveillance app. Whether involvement in a health propaganda program and distancing monitoring technology really constitutes political abuse is an open question. But this is certainly party book politics, Austrian style.

The back story, as usual, is more complicated. Part of the strength of Austria’s social support network is the close integration of highly professional NGOs with state-funded systems.  The Red Cross, Caritas Catholic Charities, the smaller protestant Diakonie, ambulance services and help organizations are all part of the official system. Zivildiener (conscripts who choose alternative service) are deployed as young low-cost labor.  It is a mish-mash system that works.

A dominant presence 

Still the political jockeying never goes away: Caritas President Michael Landau has often criticized ÖVP-driven cuts in social support funding. The Worker-Samaritan Federation’s president Franz Schnabel (also Social Democrats (SPÖ) party boss in Niederösterreich) is frustrated with the dominant presence of the Red Cross. “It is distorts the variety of help organizations involved,” he complained to Schmid.

This minor political spat might have ended there if it were not for the Red Cross’ contact tracing app., designed to register anyone who moved too close to the smart phone’s owner for 15 minutes or longer: if an infection was detected, all contacts could be traced.  At first the “Stopp Corona” app was greeted positively.  “Austria … as technical pioneer,” raved Ingrid Brodnig in the weekly Profil.  Sounded good – but of course only worked if (virtually) everybody installed the app. When the conservative parliamentary president Wolfgang Sobotka suggested the app could become mandatory, the specter of Chinese-style total surveillance seemed suddenly real. Defenders of personal freedom cried foul and Sobotka quickly withdrew. 

“Everyone will have the app.”

But the battle was on. “This will be a part of the new normal” Kurz advisor Antonella Mei-Pochtler, told the Financial Times a few days later: “Everyone will have the app.”  For the opposition parties, frustrated by the government’s impregnable popularity, this was red meat.

“Delusions of grandeur” thundered hard right FPÖ party chair Norbert Hofer. “The President must do something,” he demanded of Alexander Van der Bellen, his ex-rival for head of state. The government was quick to disavow the Mei-Pochtler comments: “Just her own opinion,” they told the media.

The impressive benefits of the app as a tool for containment will probably ensure that the debate has a long life ahead. For many, it still remains the Red Cross app.  As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.

(Foto: ÖRK / Rotes Kreuz
Tirol / Andreas
; Sources: PROFIL – 3.5 p54 – Corona App, NYT – 2.5 p2 RK in China, Der Standard 6.5.)

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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