Coronavirus in Switzerland: Why have the French and Italian-speaking regions been so hard hit?

The fatality and infection rates in French and Italian-speaking Switzerland is much higher than in the country’s German-speaking regions, however Swiss health officials have said this is due to situational factors.

Coronavirus in Switzerland: Why have the French and Italian-speaking regions been so hard hit?
A man reads a newspaper with his dog next to a playfield closed with red-and-white police warning tape in Plainpalais place in Geneva on April 16, 2020. AFP

From the beginning of the outbreak to the present day, the coronavirus has had an uneven impact on Switzerland and its 26 cantons. 

As at Thursday, April 16th, Switzerland's confirmed cases of Covid-19 stand at 26,275. The fatality toll stands at 1,242 on the basis of reporting from the cantons.

The impact of the virus has however been much higher in non-German-speaking Switzerland – however the government has said that this is due to situational factors rather than a failing of the cantonal governments themselves. 

READ ALSO: Why do Switzerland's French and German speakers disagree about easing of restrictions?

Latin Switzerland heavily affected

In just three cantons – Ticino, Vaud and Geneva – there have been just under half of the country’s confirmed cases, while the death toll from those three cantons is more than half of Switzerland’s total. 

Conversely Zurich, which is the largest canton in Switzerland with more than 1.5 million people – just under 20 percent of the country’s population – has ten percent of the country’s confirmed cases and seven percent of the fatalities. 

In total, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of the country’s total victims of Covid-19 live in Latin Switzerland, despite these areas accounting for less than a third of the country’s population. 

As reported by The Local Switzerland on Thursday, April 16th, the widespread testing in Zurich – compared with a lack of testing in other parts of the country – indicates that the figures are likely to be more accurate in Zurich but much higher in other Swiss cantons. 

What is the real count of coronavirus infections in Switzerland?

‘Nothing to do with the actions taken’

The Swiss government has however dismissed concerns that the divergence could be to do with a difference in measures taken between Switzerland’s linguistic regions. 

Talking to Swiss media outlet Le Temps on Thursday, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) said the efforts to combat the virus were largely uniform across Switzerland – meaning other situational factors were at play. 

“The measures were decided at a federal level when the epidemic was already advanced in different ways in different regions,” a FOPH spokesperson said. 

“This has nothing to do with a difference in the extent to which different cantons have taken action.

“They (the cantons in their efforts to combat the virus) are all at the same level.”

There are some factors which may have made Latin Switzerland more vulnerable to the virus than German-speaking Switzerland. 

As reported by The Local Switzerland in March, a major reason for the country’s higher than average infection rate has been its reliance on cross-border workers and its proximity to heavily-hit regions, such as those in Italy and France. 

While Ticino borders northern Italy – arguably the area of Europe heaviest hit by the virus – Geneva and Vaud border eastern France, which has also been one of the heavier hit French areas outside of Paris and Lyon. 

Conversely, while Germany has been internationally lauded for its efforts in curbing the spread of the virus and has one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.  

Ticino heavily hit

The first case was discovered in Ticino on February 25th and the southern canton would go on to be the hardest hit by the virus. 

Ticino, which borders hard-hit northern Italy, has been heavily impacted by the outbreak, counting more than 2,900 cases. 

The number of deaths in the canton is now at 263. 

This means that Ticino has just under one quarter of the country's total death toll, despite having just four percent of the population.

Western Swiss cantons heavily impacted

The western cantons of Vaud and Geneva have the most infections of any Swiss canton, with 4,700 and 4,400 respectively – more than a third of the country's total cases as at April 16th. 

The death rate is also high in these two cantons. In total, 254 people have died in Vaud and 172 in Geneva due to the virus.


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Reader question: Can I put my Swiss health insurance on hold if I’m abroad?

Given how expensive health insurance premiums are in Switzerland, you may be tempted to suspend your policy while you are abroad. Is this possible?

Reader question: Can I put my Swiss health insurance on hold if I'm abroad?

Unlike the obligatory car insurance, which you can suspend temporarily by depositing your registration plates at the local motor vehicles office, rules pertaining to health insurance are much stricter.

As the Federal Office of Public Health explains it, “If you leave the country for a certain period to travel or study but do not take up residence abroad, you are still required to have [health] insurance in Switzerland”.

In other words, as long as you are a registered resident of Switzerland, regardless of your nationality or passport, you must keep your compulsory Swiss health insurance and pay your premiums. While you do this, you also remain covered against most medical emergencies while you travel.

However, rules are less stringent for supplemental health plans which can, in some cases, be put on hold, depending on the insurance provider, according to Switzerland’s Moneyland consumer website.

The only exception allowed for suspending the health insurance coverage is during a military or civil protection service which lasts more than 60 consecutive days.

“During these periods, the risks of illness and accident are covered by military insurance. Your health insurance provider will refund your premiums”, according to FOPH.

Under what circumstances can you cancel your Swiss health insurance?

Swiss law says you can cancel your insurance if you are moving abroad, either permanently for for a period exceeding three months.

If you do so, only claims for treatments given while you still lived in Switzerland will be paid by your insurance; any medical bills for treatment incurred after you officially leave will be denied.

These are the procedures for cancelling your compulsory health insurance if you leave the country under conditions mentioned above

To announce your departure abroad, you must send your insurance carrier a letter including your name, customer number or AVS/AHV number.

You must also include a certificate from your place of residence in Switzerland confirming that you have de-registered from your current address, as well as the date of your departure.

Note, however, that if your new destination is another Swiss community / canton, rather than a foreign country, your insurance can only be cancelled from the following calendar year and only if you present proof of having taken up a new policy with another company.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to register your address in Switzerland

You can find out more information about this process here

If you suspend your health insurance for less than six years, you can reactivate it at a later date with the same company when you return to Switzerland.

READ MORE : What you should know about your Swiss health insurance before you go abroad