It’s an unenviable position: As of April 19, Wolfgang Mückstein (Greens) has taken over as Federal Minister of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection from Rudolf Anschober, who abruptly resigned on April 13 due to exhaustion and health problems.
Assuming the role of Austria’s frontline crisis manager during a global pandemic without much political experience is no small task, and Mückstein is aware of the challenge. “I believe that at the moment, a Health Minister can do many things wrong and very few things right,” he admitted on ZIB 2 on April 20, calling the job “thankless.” Yet he’s certainly motivated to do his part, stating “I want to be part of the solution.”
A 46-year-old general practitioner who runs a group practice in Vienna’s 6th district, Mückstein has been a member of the Green Party since 2004; he also serves in the Austrian Medical Chamber and was part of the 2019 coalition negotiations on health and social affairs between the Greens and the People’s Party (ÖVP). More recently, he worked as a special advisor for the outgoing Anschober during the latter’s tenure and helped develop Austria’s testing and vaccination strategies, gaining valuable experience he can draw on in his new role.
Mückstein has so far remained vague regarding the technicalities of his ministry, remarking that he needs time to familiarize himself with all the details, given his sudden promotion. Indeed, many challenges await: Between finding his feet within the Kurz administration, accelerating Austria’s vaccination program and resolving the conflicting interests of Austrian business, the social partners and the federal states, Mückstein will need to “make unpopular decisions if necessary,” as he stated in his first public appearance on April 13.
So far, his experience as a physician has been an asset: “In the past 15 months, I saw a lot in my practice”, he stated at the announcement of Austria-wide opening steps starting May 19, emphasizing the collateral damage of the pandemic he has seen firsthand, in particular its psychological and social toll.
His focus will be on the immediate tasks of testing and vaccination for now, but Mückstein’s long-term priorities lie with matters of social justice: In an interview with the Austrian daily Der Standard, he claimed he was Health Minister 80% of the time, Social Minister only 20%, but hoped that “these numbers would be reversed in the future.” While addressing parliament for the first time, Mückstein presented plans to improve working conditions for the caregiver and nursing professions, modernize the Austrian healthcare system, facilitate psychotherapy covered by health insurance and combat poverty in particular, which has “only worsened due to the crisis.” Implementing these ambitious reforms while managing the ongoing pandemic will undoubtedly require strong nerves from the new minister.