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Switzerland and the pandemic: does the economy matter more?

By Edward Girardet

For a nation that prides itself on being on the global forefront of new technologies and science, particularly health care, Switzerland has an astoundingly poor record for dealing with Covid-19. The Lake Geneva region, which borders locked-down France, ranks as one of the worst coronavirus hotspots in Europe. Many Swiss, too, act as if there is no pandemic by crowding into shopping malls or socialising without masks. And in an astounding Orwellian proposal of human disdain, some Swiss doctors have suggested that anyone over the age of 60 entering hospital should sign an affidavit waiving their rights to resuscitation to make room for younger patients. Recently returned from East Asia, where countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore have managed to keep a lid on the outbreak, Edward Girardet explores why the Swiss government’s approach is not only dangerous but self defeating.

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Unlike most Europeans and North Americans, East Asians take their masks seriously. From China, Taiwan and Thailand to Singapore, people have tended traditionally to wear face gear in public if affected by a cold so as not to spread it or – as was commonplace in many cities prior to the current pandemic – to filter pollution. (As NASA satellite imagery has shown, shutdowns have produced a far lower level of CO2 pollution. See Global Geneva article on the links between climate change and the pandemic). Asians also harbour a courtesy toward others which culturally does not exist in much of the West as well as a respect for the power of virus stemming from their experience with SARS and H1N1.

The end result is that select East Asian government policies countering COVID-19 have proved highly effective leaving their countries virtually “Covid-free.” Australia has embraced similar approaches with relative success as have Iceland and Finland. (See Global Geneva article by Tira Shubart). According to Johns Hopkins University, Finland has the lowest number of cases in Europe with less than 20,000 cases and 374 deaths. The question now is why Switzerland has been unable to do the same.

Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore: lessons for Switzerland?

With 5.7 million people, Singapore experienced severe Covid glitches earlier in the year, primarily caused by overcrowded migrant worker accommodation, but then imposed tight regulations. These have resulted in less than 60,000 reported cases and 28 fatalities. According to latest figures, there have been no community-based incidents for nearly three weeks. However, as with other countries, such as Malaysia and Thailand, tourism has been hit badly. Unable to open up yet, the government has introduced a “Rediscover Singapore” initiative to encourage residents to go out and enjoy themselves. According to Singapore Tourism Board chief executive Keith Tam, while “local consumption will not fully make up for tourism spending,” it will help sustain hotels and attractions.

For its part, Vietnam (population: 97 million) has been draconian in its clampdowns, but is now widely regarded as one of the safest Covid-free places in the world. It has suffered barely 1,400 reported cases and 35 dead, the latest of which are considered to have been ‘imported’. Perhaps more accustomed to virus outbreaks than in Europe, the Vietnamese chose to confront COVID-19 head-on from the very beginning. Doing it properly has paid off.

During the country’s first wave in early 2020, Hanoi closed its borders and – not unlike Wuhan Province in China – placed hundreds of thousands of people into quarantine. This produced 90 days of coronavirus-free contamination enabling restrictions to loosen. However, following a completely unexpected new outbreak in July in Da Nang, possibly caused by returning workers from abroad, it evacuated all tourists, closed non-essential businesses and even put entire streets into quarantine. Anyone who failed to respect the rules was fined. For British journalist Lauren Fox, who experienced Vietnam’s first surge, such remedial approaches may have appeared harsh, but life is now “back to normal” with only limited constraints. Special economic protocols are in place, for example, allowing business people, diplomats and specialized workers to enter the country.

Another success story is Thailand, which imposed a state of emergency with a broad lock down, including the closing of all its borders, in late March, 2020. It then began easing up once conditions had improved. Renewed on a monthly basis, the regime’s continued state of emergency also has been used as a tool for cracking down on political dissent under the guise of countering Covid. The government, for example, has been deploying its emergency powers to ban demonstrations and retains the right to censor the press.

Nevertheless, with less than 4,000 cases and only 60 dead (some question official figures as too low) Thailand’s methods appear to be working. While businesses have been badly affected, particularly tourism, many malls, markets, restaurants, gyms and bars are at least open, albeit with far fewer customers. Companies have returned to work, but many employees still operate from home. Regardless, everyone wears masks and there is an effort to social distance.

As noted recently in a Global Geneva article, tourism used to represent 20 per cent or more of the country’s economy. Since the pandemic, this has more or less collapsed. The Thais, however, like to stress the importance of doing it right the first time. The last thing they want is for the pandemic to start all over again. However, as various sources within the hospitality business point out, Thailand still has far to go. It is unlikely to return to ‘normal’ until a vaccine is broadly available worldwide, possibly toward the end of 2021 or well into 2022. Most of its foreign tourists come from Europe, North America, China, Middle East and Australia.

While Thailand has not opened up per se, it is allowing foreigners and returning nationals to enter the country, but they are obliged to undergo 14 days quarantine – a highly tedious affair obliging one to remain in one’s room – at specially-designated hotels or military-run facilities. Most new cases are now from abroad, such as migrant workers, but also expatriates. The most recent were from Europe, including Switzerland and the UK, who tested positive during quarantine. Overall, however, Thailand ranks itself as Covid-free.

Why has Switzerland failed so badly?

So back to Switzerland with its 8.5 million people, one quarter of whom are foreign, plus over 300,000 cross-border workers. Since the first outbreaks in March 2020, Switzerland has embraced a curious, if not inconsistent approach for dealing with the pandemic. There has been no firm national policy; instead, cantons have taken their own half-hearted and often ineffective measures. While – as with much of Europe – the first spike largely dissipated over the summer due to a well-designed government-ordered lockdown, cases rose drastically in October. While numbers are dropping, Switzerland was – and still is – considered one of Europe’s worst affected countries.

Overall, Switzerland has witnessed over 320,000 reported cases and 4,400+ deaths. While daily cases appear to have gone down from a high 10,073 on 4 November, it has hovered at around 4,000 since 22 November (4,241, 4,876 and 4,509 for the last three days). On 24 November French daily cases were roughly double Switzerland’s (4,241 vs 9,155), yet France, which has suffered over 2.18 million cases and 51,000 deaths, has seven times more people.

Why has Switzerland failed so badly? Is it because – as some suggest – that the Swiss care more about money and their economy than human life? One repeated argument is that Switzerland has sufficient health care facilities to deal with any surges and hence does not need to be as harsh as other European countries with its counter-methods. But this argument has proven false. Beds with sufficient healthcare staff are running short. And not only are people dying at alarmingly elevated rates prompting the government to call in the army to help, but bioethicists have been asked to council doctors on moral triage practices—i.e., who should live and who should die. According to REGA, Switzerland’s air rescue organization, hospitals in French-speaking Switzerland “are already reaching saturation.”

Or is it because the Bern government – never one for confrontation — is reluctant to infringe on the freedoms of its fellow citizens with a nation-wide approach of informed but strict measures? Instead, the Federal authorities seem to prefer to ‘encourage’ rather than ‘impose’, such as the wearing of masks outside or restricting the number of shoppers at any one time in a mall or department store. The reality is that many Swiss have not been as voluntarily responsible as they should be – or as the government maintains they are.

As we know, the Swiss will follow orders quite rigidly, if given them. Had Bern required people to wear masks at the beginning of the outbreak instead of negating their efficacy, the Swiss would – like the Thais and the Vietnamese – be wearing them religiously. This would have placed Switzerland amongst the leading Coronavirus-free nations. As some point out, the fault lies with Bern’s lack of courage and crisis of leadership, not with the Swiss people.

While Swiss now rank Covid-19 as one of their main concerns, they have yet to grasp its seriousness. As medical sources note, even if those who contract the virus initially manifest few or no symptoms, we do not really know the long-term consequences. Cases of apparently healthy individuals, including young people, have begun to emerge with complications directly related to the virus, including death.

Swiss Covid-19 policy: Hard to grasp

It is difficult to know where Swiss policy really stands. Social media, but also news organizations such as the London Daily Mail, The New York Times and The Washington Post find Switzerland’s behaviour puzzling, even irresponsible if not altogether reprehensible.

One problem is that it is largely up to the country’s 26 cantons to decide what needs to be done. Some have imposed their own constraints with the closure of restaurants, cafes and night clubs coupled with limits on what shops can sell. The result is that many residents simply head over to neighbouring cantons to do their shopping. Geneva, which hit 1,366 new daily cases at the end of October, imposed its own partial lockdown. It now stands at roughly 200+ a day, still unacceptably high when compared to Vietnam or Thailand. Because of such progress, together with four other French-speaking cantons (Jura, Vaud, Neuchatel and Fribourg), it is now planning to re-open its cafes and restaurants on 10 December, plus “non-essential” shops opened over the weekend. (See Le News)

Switzerland’s French-speaking parts, which make up one quarter of the population, currently represent 44 per cent of the country’s deaths. It is a somewhat different story in German-speaking Switzerland where cases have proven lower. Nevertheless, people in these cantons act as if the coronavirus does not exist. One Genevan visitor to Gstaad (a German-speaking luxury resort) recently commented that “you would never imagine there is a pandemic.” The town’s main street, she said, “was packed and the cafes and restaurants full, many people not even wearing masks.”

Such lassitude is even reflected by those supposed to oversee public safety. While some police pontedly wear their masks when on duty, many do not. When asked why he was not setting an example, one officer insisted that masks in the outdoors are not required by the law. Nor are there any effective controls, such as tracking, at border crossings, as with neighbouring France (which is in lockdown). Thus the virus can easily transit in both directions.

In a posture more in line with countries lacking a free press, the Bern government has repeatedly denied or ignored attempts by journalists representing the international community, including Global Insights Magazine, to interview Swiss Minister of Health Alain Berset. All the necessary information, one official noted, can be found in Swiss government communiques. Not only is the government Covid website regarded as not particularly informative, but it comes across as a propaganda mechanism more designed to obfuscate the truth. One has the impression that the last thing the government wishes to do is to respond to probing questions.

For example, what form of tangible collaboration is Bern taking with its European Union neighbours in tackling the pandemic so as not to undermine the far more targeted lockdowns of Germany or France? Why is Switzerland acting as if on it is an island? And what about informing Switzerland’s own international communities? Switzerland’s head of infectious disease, Daniel Koch retired when the going got too rough, while Berset has simply refused the international community’s press free access to information.

In an 18 November 2020 interview on the BBC’s Hardtalk, Dr. David Nabarro, Special Envoy for Covid of the World Health Organization (WHO) pointedly commented on how Geneva – the heart of International Switzerland – had become Europe’s new Covid-19 epicentre. He was polite in his criticism, but other WHO officials were less tactful when off the record. “Switzerland has been a complete disaster in its attitude,” noted one. “I don’t know whether it is arrogance or ignorance, but it’s disgraceful.”

Will Switzerland’s ski resorts endanger the rest of Europe?

One critical situation is the fact that Swiss ski resorts, some of which are already open for business, are planning to surge ahead with Christmas. Swiss minister Berset defended this decision by claiming that while there are “differences between the measures from one country to the other,” his government is in regular contact its neighbours. He admitted, however, that planned closures across the border could complicate Switzerland’s situation, including the bad press it is receiving. At the same time, he argued that Switzeland has the right to make its own decisions. “We know what’s at stake. The situation must not get out of hand,” he said. Yet why open ski resorts amidst rising infection numbers and insufficient surge capacity ICU care?

The Swiss decision is starkly at odds with other European countries. Some, too, consider it a serious threat to their own containment efforts. And Switzerland’s past record is not good. Swiss stations, such as Verbier (See Global Geneva article on the first cases in Switzerland), were partially responsible last March for spreading the virus to other parts of Europe. Despite warnings by local medical personnel, the Bern authorities delayed shutting down Verbier and other resorts for two weeks. This enabled holidaymakers to pursue a hefty weekend of partying prior to heading home, thus explosively spreading the virus amongst themselves and then to other parts of Switzerland and Europe.

Germany, France and Italy are currently all seeking a concerted European response to the closing of EU ski resorts. They fear that keeping them open will only re-accelerate the spread of the virus. Italy’s prime minister Guiseppe Conte has warned that it could become “uncontrollable”, while Bavarian premier Markus Soeder, whose state hosts most of Germany’s mountain stations, maintained that it could “thwart all efforts” to contain the pandemic.

Austria, whose stations proved to be an early spreader of the coronavirus, is reluctant to see them shut – like Switzerland – for economic reasons. As a result, both countries are playing down the risks. According to the Washington Post, this is “the second time this year that officials in Alpine skiing resorts are facing accusations of putting economic incentives over health consideration.”

The Vienna government, which may have to bend to Brussels’ wishes, is demanding that the EU pay the bills if it does. French President Emmanuel Macron, however, has been more forthright. He announced that French resorts would remain closed over Christmas as a crucial measure to vanquishing the virus. At the same time, the government would consider re-opening them in February if all goes well.

When Covid hits the fan – again – it’s up to the medics to deal with it

The Swiss, on the other hand, seem determined to proceed as normal. From St Moritz to Crans-Montana, they have announced select precautions, such as the wearing of masks on ski lifts and social distancing in ski lift lines, cafes and other crowded spaces, but it seems doubtful that these will significantly keep infections down.

One suggestion is that the Swiss should at least provide quick (and cheap) testing not only in ski resorts but elsewhere. In the United States, for example, families in Los Angeles wishing to visit others over Thanksgiving were able to be tested immediately. Children in Manhattan’s private schools in New York are also tested on a weekly basis. Switzerland has no policy for such tests and even in places where they are available, such as certain Geneva pharmacies, the waiting list is long and thus completely impractical.

Some medical observers fear a major spike in infections – and deaths – over the holidays as a result. As one Swiss doctor at Lausanne’s CHUV hospital system noted: “I fully understand that the resorts need to do business. But, once again, it’s all about money, not lives. To imagine that nothing bad’s going to happen is delusional…When it does, it’s up to us medics to take care of the problem. And we’re already stretched as it is. It’s very selfish.” Another often ignored factor is the high number of accidents on Swiss slopes, some 76,000 every year according to the Swiss Council of Accident Prevention (BFU/BPA/UP). This is another severe drain on emergency medical facilities.

As in the United States, while many Swiss now regard the possibility of having the anti-Covid-19 vaccine (by early 2021 according to Berset) as the key to all their problems, numerous others do not. Misinformation if not ignorance has played a huge derogatory role. According to a recent Swiss Broadcasting Corporation survey of 40,000 people, more than one quarter (28 per cent) of people interviewed said that they would not take it; nearly half (47 per cent) were hesitant. (See Global Geneva article on the need for better reporting of pandemics)

The problem is that vaccine or not, people will still need to take precautions and probably for months. Counter-measures will prove fruitless if more than 70 per cent do not participate. According to The Lancet, the Swiss rank amongst the lowest in the world with confidence in a vaccine.

From the international point of view, one key issue is that the United Nations agencies in Geneva have been obliged to follow the guidelines presented by Switzerland as host country. “The Swiss seemed determined that everything shoud appear as normal,” commented a UN official. Many UN employees were obliged to go into the office during the recent spikes despite the dangers.

The Palais des Nations has implemented significant precautions, such as limits on numbers entering the building and the need for everyone to wear masks, but the fears of contagion remain. In mid-November, the UN announced – to no surprise – 128 cases amongst Geneva-based staff, including Filippo Grande, the head of the UN’s Refugee Office. Nevertheless, unlike UN offices elsewhere, such as New York and Bangkok, Geneva has continued to hold significantly sized (partly in person, partly viral) international meetings, notably the Afghanistan donor conference earlier this month.

As one senior UN official noted: “With WHO and other organizations, Geneva is the world capital for health. The Swiss should have been setting an example from the very beginning…They didn’t. The trouble now is that they still haven’t.”

Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent, author and editor of Global Insights Magazine. He is based between Geneva and Bangkok.

This article was first published on Global Geneva

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