CSOs included in governments COVID-19 emergency fund

Association

Government’s emergency legislation

Interest Group of Public Benefit Organisations (IGO) reported that the Austrian government implemented strict measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). In an extraordinary session of parliament on 15th March 2020, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz extended restrictions on freedom of movement. Restrictions were issued affecting all aspects of public life, i.e. education, public events, retail and business and free movement outside of homes.

There was widespread approval of the government's early steps aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. On 2nd April 2020, several laws were passed, specifying and extending some prior measures and making the necessary amendments to many other laws such as 2. Covid-19 Gesetz and 3., 4. und 5. COVID-19-Gesetz. Wearing face masks while shopping for food or using public transport has become mandatory. Police are patrolling people to ensure that those who leave their homes keep a minimum distance of one metre between each other. A Stop Corona App was also developed by the Red Cross to help track people’s contacts and assist in curbing the spread of the virus. Amnesty International and epicenter.works considered the measures as adequate but demanded a clear and strong focus on human rights issues, data-protection issues and sunset clauses for restrictions. After media coverage about political assemblies which took place and respected safety measures in Israel, calls demanding the re-establishment of the right to freely assemble got louder.

The new government has adopted a much more moderate tone and course than the previous government, as reported previously on the Monitor. Nevertheless, public discourse about the effects of COVID-19 measures on democracy is increasing. By the end of 2019, the new government integrated in its work programme many of the concerns of CSOs, except for concrete measures on increasing CSO participation. However, due to the crisis almost all the mid-term projects of government’s work programme were postponed. The public administration, especially those services controlled by the Green party, is increasingly asking for IGO’s input on the design and implementation of emergency measures for CSOs.

Challenges for the sector

IGO and other CSOs have asked the government to support the sector economically, which could also be a potential opportunity to restructure the dialogue. Challenges include the lack of reliable data on the sector and a lack of capacity on IGO’s side to implement economic emergency measures, similar to the Chamber of Commerce who does it for its members and has already processed 100,000+ claims with cash transfers to 85,000+ small entrepreneurs within a week.

Measures to support the sector

The government announced that, in principle, it will honour public grants, at least at the national level, even if the activities planned were not carried out. However, some provinces have already announced that grants for 2020 will be reduced. Since 27th March 2020 a €2 billion emergency fund has been in place, from which the above-mentioned payments have already been made. On 15th March 2020, a law (Covid-19 Gesetz) was passed by parliament, which for the first time in Austrian history mentions "Non-Profit Organisations" and says that they are eligible for the same emergency fund as small entrepreneurs. However, the administration is so far struggling with criteria and calculations, to the effect that NPOs still have no access to these funds. To assist, NGOs are currently supporting the government with information on the sector and on the impact of the crisis on their members. This fund consists of 2 phases: a maximum of 1,000 Euros to be provided immediately, followed by a maximum 2,000 Euros monthly payment for a maximum of three months. There is another measure in the pipeline, a 15 billion Euro emergency fund for all businesses that suffer from a minimum 40% decrease of annual turnover. It is still unclear as to what extent this fund will be open to CSOs, i.e. social enterprises.

On 29th May 2020, the National Council cleared the way for the support funding mechanism for NPOs from the 700 million Euro support fund announced in mid-May. This fund (20. COVID-19-Gesetz) was established in mid-May 2020 in a draft law submitted by the governing parties. Realistically, the first instalments are not expected to arrive before the end of June 2020.

Peaceful Assembly

On 24th April 2020 about 200 people gathered in Vienna to protest governments lockdown measures. The protest was organised by the Initiative for Evidence-Based Corona Information (ICI). Media reports state that the crowd was dispersed, and one protester was detained.

Expression

In the new Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Austria has lost two positions since 2019 and has been downgraded from 16th to 18th in the ranking.

In line with developments in other countries in Europe and all over the world, RSF reports journalists’ concerns regarding tracking apps, part of the governmental measures announced which give “government bodies permission to analyse aggregated and anonymised location data”.