COVID-19: The Swiss experience so far

| August 2, 2020 | 0 Comments
The Flon, usually a heavily travelled district in Lausanne, is shown here during the pandemic. (Photo: CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy)

The Flon, usually a heavily travelled district in Lausanne, is shown here during the pandemic. (Photo: CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy)

In Switzerland, the first case of COVID-19 was identified Feb. 25 and the first case of community transmission came on March 2. As of May 29, there were approximately 31,000 confirmed cases with a death toll of 1,700 out of a population of 8 million. That makes Switzerland one of the most affected countries in Europe. Switzerland hit its peak of new cases at the end of March and through early April. The rate of new cases began to slow in mid-April, and so did the number of people admitted to hospitals. Since early May, daily new infections have levelled off to between 10 and 50 — which is equivalent to a daily increase of between 0.05 and 0.1 per cent of total infections. Fortunately, since the outbreak of the pandemic, hospital capacities have not been overwhelmed in Switzerland.
The recent positive trends in Switzerland can be directly attributed to the response by the Swiss government and the Swiss people. And the response, in turn, is directly linked to the context within which it needed to be formulated: Like Canada, Switzerland is a federal state with its 26 provinces, known as cantons, enjoying wide-ranging powers and jurisdictions in a variety of policy areas. Switzerland might be known for its natural beauty, but it is also one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, with a high degree of domestic mobility. A full 70 per cent of the Swiss workforce commutes to a workplace outside of their municipality, many crossing provincial borders to do so. Every day, 330,000 workers from neighbouring countries — Germany, France, Italy, and Austria — cross the national borders to work in Switzerland. With some of the most important European transit routes passing through Switzerland, the number of overall daily border crossings amounts to 2.3 million, about nine times the daily crossings on the Canadian-U.S. border.
To be effective, the Swiss government’s response strategy to fight the spread of the coronavirus needed to take this reality into account. It did so by declaring an “extraordinary situation” — basically a national state of emergency — as set out in the Federal Epidemics Act. This step allowed the federal government to order the introduction of uniform measures in all cantons, effectively limiting provincial powers, which was a first for Switzerland. But this unprecedented move was deemed necessary, considering the spatial density and high degree of mobility in Switzerland outlined above. Centralizing the COVID response at the federal level was preceded by a short, but in-depth, consultation process with the cantons, and accompanied throughout by close co-ordination and co-operation with (and among) them.
The actual measures taken in Switzerland are quite similar to the ones taken by Canadian authorities. They include the closing of all non-essential businesses, schools and universities, indoor and outdoor entertainment and leisure facilities, as well as restaurants and bars. Gatherings of more than five people were banned nationwide, and strict physical distancing requirements introduced, applicable in private as well as work environments. However, and again similar to the Canadian approach, the Swiss federal government refrained from issuing curfews or a blanket stay-at-home order for people without symptoms. Public parks have remained open for exercising, but distancing rules must be followed. Domestically, no inter-cantonal travel restrictions were in place at any time, though the public was strongly discouraged from travelling. Restrictions for entry into Switzerland were, however, introduced, with exceptions for cross-border commuters, many of whom work in essential services, such as the health-care sector or the pharmaceutical industries. This measure was taken in co-ordination with neighbouring countries. Around 50,000 people were turned away over the course of March and April, which was below the expectations of Swiss border authorities. It seems that most people decided to refrain from trying to cross in the first place. Along with the measures to increase physical distancing goes testing. With thousands of tests carried out each day, Switzerland had one of the highest per-capita rates of testing in the world in March and April. Early preparation and a comparatively high density of accredited laboratories and a strong health-science ecosystem in Switzerland allowed for domestic production of testing kits. Additionally, contact-tracing is being enhanced, in step with the gradual easing of restrictions. To that end, the Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne jointly developed a smartphone app. It has been approved by the health ministry and is currently in pilot phase (likely until end of June), before a nationwide rollout. There are, of course, privacy and data security concerns. To address these, the source-code is open and the app processes data locally and automatically deletes them after three weeks. No contact tracing data leave the phone unless authorized by the user. According to an early survey, around 60 per cent of the Swiss population plan to download the app.
Now that we see a significant decline in the number of new cases, Switzerland has started easing restrictions. The positive trajectory has allowed the Swiss authorities to ease more restrictions faster than expected, while keeping in mind the fragility of the situation. In different phases over the course of several weeks, schools, restaurants and most shops were allowed to reopen, with safety protocols in place. The third stage of the four-stage plan was activated June 6 and included the reopening of campgrounds and events with crowds of up to 300 people. Borders to neighbouring countries were reopened on June 15. This step-by-step reopening strategy, too, was closely co-ordinated with the cantons, as well as the private sector. The federal government defined guidelines and timeframe, while the cantons and the private sector are in charge of drawing up and implementing safety protocols. This approach taps into a long tradition of bottom-up solution-finding processes in Switzerland, the basic idea being that each industry knows best how to protect employees and customers under social-distancing guidelines while running business operations in practical terms.
None of the measures and actions taken by the Swiss government would have borne fruit had the public not followed them. Mobilizing an entire society to voluntarily restrict their freedom is a challenge for any leadership. Imposing restrictions on citizens who are accustomed to having the last say in the political decision-making process, as is the case in the Swiss system of direct democracy, is an additional challenge. The Swiss government meets these challenges by communicating to the public regularly, coherently, transparently, with empathy and based on the best scientific expertise and advice available. Through credible communication, unprecedented actions become understandable. The government also laid the foundation for an informed debate and political discourse, which is ensuing now that the economic fallout of the crisis is becoming apparent.
Depending on the realities on the ground, different nations choose different strategies and policies to address the pandemic. But one thing has become abundantly clear: No country can overcome this global crisis on its own. International co-operation has been crucial for Switzerland, whether to secure supply lines or procure and share essential equipment for health-care providers and hospitals and whether to co-ordinate policies regarding travel restrictions and border closings or whether, by teaming up with partners such as Canada, to bring home our citizens stranded abroad in the largest repatriation effort in the history of our countries. International and multilateral co-operation will remain indispensable to develop diagnostics, treatments and a vaccine, and to make them accessible for all. A rules-based and co-operative international order continues to be the single best tool we have to deal with the globally disruptive effects of this ongoing crisis while safeguarding human rights and socioeconomic security. In this, too, Switzerland and Canada are aligned.
I would like to conclude with a word of gratitude to all the essential workers in Canada, Switzerland and around the globe. Without them, all the strategies, policies and measures would have been futile. They risk their lives for us, and we owe it to them to continue to follow the rules in these difficult and unprecedented times in order to make sure the early first successes in mitigating and containing the spread of the virus will be sustained.

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Category: Diplomatica

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