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Coronavirus crisis lays bare poverty in Geneva as thousands queue for food

In one of the world's most expensive cities, thousands of people lined up Saturday for free food, as the COVID-19 crisis casts a spotlight on Geneva's usually invisible poor.

Coronavirus crisis lays bare poverty in Geneva as thousands queue for food
Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

In the Swiss city famous for its private banks, luxury watchmakers and fancy boutiques, people began lining up at 5:00 am (0300 GMT) Saturday, according to the association Caravane de Solidarite, the main organiser of the event.

By the time the distribution at Geneva's Vernet hockey stadium began four hours later, the queue of people, most wearing masks and standing two metres (six feet) apart, stretched and wound for about 1.5 kilometres (1 mile).

Organisers said they believed at least as many people had showed up as a week earlier, when well over 2,000 took part. “We're in a bit of a crescendo,” Silvana Mastromatteo, head of Caravane de Solidarite, told AFP, adding that Saturday's distribution was the sixth the organisation had set up since the crisis began, with more and more people showing up each time.

“We need food,” Silvia Mango, a 64-year-old from the Philippines, said after waiting for three hours under a hot spring sun.

“Everything is just so much more difficult since the crisis began,” she said, adjusting the scarf draped over her mouth and nose, and acknowledged this is her second time accepting a hand-out.

'Immediately fragilised'

Switzerland introduced a range of emergency measures in mid-March, including closing restaurants and most other businesses, to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, which to date has killed more than 1,500 people out of more than 30,000 infected in the Alpine nation.

While the country has begun gradually lifting measures, the nearly two-month shutdown has had particularly dire consequences for undocumented workers and other vulnerable groups already living on the edge.

According to Switzerland's Federal Statistics Office, around eight percent of the Swiss population, or some 660,000 people, are considered to live in poverty, out of around one million living in a precarious situation.

“We know this population exists,” said Isabelle Widmer, who is in charge of coordinating the City of Geneva's response to the crisis and who on Saturday was providing support to the food drive.

“But it has been astonishing to see how this population was so immediately fragilised by this crisis,” she said, as volunteers donning fluorescent yellow and orange vests stacked bags of food behind tables topped with bottles of disinfectant. 

COVID-19 tests

Around 1,500 large shopping bags filled with rice, pasta instant coffee, cereal and other goods have been prepared and line the walls of the large entrance hall and fill a nearby hall.

In addition, a large pile of reserves tower in one corner next to mountains of empty bags, ready to be filled if needed.

And if the food supplies run out, 20-franc coupons will be handed out, said Patrick Wieland of the Doctor Without Borders charity, a co-organiser of Saturday's event that goes by its French acronym MSF. 

In addition to food, MSF is offering free COVID-19 tests to people showing symptoms, said Wieland, who is in charge of MSF's COVID-19 response in Switzerland.

Mastromatteo said there was no requirement for recipients to prove they were in need.

“It is not easy to stand in this line and ask for help,” she said, insisting that “anyone who is here is here because they are in need.”

Miguel Martinez, a 27-year-old undocumented restaurant worker from Colombia in the queue, lamented that “the virus has upended everything. There is no work. Nothing.” He said it was frustrating to have to accept handouts, but said he had no choice.

“The restaurants have received assistance, but not me. I have nothing to eat.” 

'We have nothing'

Odmaa Myagmarjavzanlkham, a 27-year-old undocumented migrant from Mongolia, also said she had nowhere else to turn, since she could no longer find work cleaning houses, and all of her husband's gardening jobs had also disappeared.

“There is no work. We can't find the food,” she said.

Usually the couple sends most of the money the make back to Mongolia where their five-year-old son still lives with his grandmother, but now they cannot even cover their rent, she said.

“It is so expensive here, and we have nothing.”

A survey conducted of some 550 of those queueing for food a week ago showed that more than half were undocumented, but nearly a third had a residence permit and nearly four percent were Swiss nationals.

That survey also showed that 3.4 percent of those questioned said they had already tested positive for COVID-19, said Wieland, pointing out that that is three times the percentage seen in Geneva overall.

He pointed out that many of those hardest-hit by the crisis live in cramped quarters, sometimes with a dozen family members squeezed into a small apartment, making them more vulnerable to infection.

“There is poverty in Geneva that usually is quite hidden, under the radar,” he said. “Obviously, with the coronavirus crisis, everything just becomes a lot more visible.”

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CANNABIS

UPDATE: What are Switzerland’s rules for cannabis consumption?

Switzerland has a complicated set of rules for both medical and recreational cannabis consumption. Here's what you need to know.

UPDATE: What are Switzerland's rules for cannabis consumption?

Long prohibited and seen as a gateway drug with potentially dangerous impacts, countries across the globe have begun legalising cannabis in recent years. 

While the legalisation for medical use has been widespread, there have also been successful legalisation campaigns in several countries. 

The situation in Switzerland is also in flux and has been complicated by a range of recent changes.

Whether referred to as cannabis, marijuana or hemp, Switzerland’s Narcotics Act qualifies it as “a psychoactive substance”, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being its most intoxicating ingredient.

The law specifies that “only THC is controlled under the Narcotics Act. Other active substances like cannabidiol (CBD) are not subject to the Narcotics Act as they do not have comparable psychoactive effects”.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Switzerland has legalised medical marijuana 

As of August 1st, the use of cannabis for medical purposes will be allowed in Switzerland

Patients who are medically prescribed the drug will no longer need to seek exceptional permission from the health ministry, as was the case prior to August 1st. 

Demand for cannabis-based treatments has risen sharply, with the health ministry issuing 3,000 exceptional authorisations in 2019.

The government “intends to facilitate access to cannabis for medical use for patients” and was therefore lifting the ban on its use for that purpose, it said in a statement.

The previous procedure involved “tedious administrative procedures”, said the ministry. “Sick people must be able to access these medicines without excessive bureaucracy.”

As of August 1st, “the decision as to whether a cannabis medicinal product is to be used therapeutically will be made by the doctor together with the patient” the government wrote

The sale and consumption of cannabis for non-medical purposes will remain prohibited.

READ MORE: Switzerland to lift ban on medical use cannabis

The new regulations could benefit thousands of people suffering from severe chronic pain, it added, including those with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

READ ALSO: Why Basel is about to become Switzerland’s marijuana capital

The law change will also mean that the cultivation, processing, manufacture and trade of cannabis for medical use will be subject to the Swissmedic regulatory authority, just as with other narcotics for medical use such as cocaine, methadone and morphine.

Legality of recreational cannabis is determined by the THC

THC of at least 1 percent is generally prohibited in Switzerland and use of products with this (or higher) content may be punishable by a 100-franc fine.

Of course, if someone is determined to smoke it, 100 francs may not be much a deterrent — but that’s a subject for another article.

“By contrast, possession of up to 10g of cannabis for personal use is not considered a criminal offence”, the law states, as long as it is not used by or sold to minors.

Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

And, as with nearly everything else in decentralised Switzerland, “there are still considerable differences between cantons regarding implementation of the fixed penalty procedure”.

However, “cannabis flowers intended for smoking with a high proportion of cannabidiol (CBD) and less than 1 percent THC can be sold and purchased legally”, according to the legislation. 

That’s because, unlike the THC, cannabidiol “does not have a psychoactive effect”.

In other words, low-content THC and CBD will not give the “high” that recreational users seek.

When will Switzerland legalise recreational cannabis?

Currently, small amounts of recreational cannabis are tolerated in Switzerland.

“The decisive factor for classification as a banned drug is how much THC is contained in a cannabis product. If the THC content exceeds one per cent, the product is prohibited. Hashish is prohibited regardless of its THC content.”

As noted by the Swiss government, “If you are caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis (no more than 10 grams) for your own consumption, you will not be fined. In addition, if you supply (but do not sell) up to 10 grams to an adult, e.g. when sharing joints, you will not be fined.”

“If you are caught using cannabis, you may be given a fixed penalty fine of 100 francs.”

In June 2020, the National Council approved a plan to start cannabis trials for recreational use.

The experiments are to be carried out in Switzerland’s larger cities. Basel, Bern, Biel, Geneva and Zurich have all expressed interest in conducting the trials. 

The study seeks to find out how the market for cannabis works – and how to combat the black market. The social effects of legalisation will also be examined. 

At this point, no decisions have been made. However, Swiss authorities have set certain conditions in case recreational use is approved.

The National Council said if cannabis were to be legalised, it must be locally grown in Switzerland – and it must be organic. 

Health Minister Alain Berset noted that legalisation should benefit Swiss farmers even though “very few producers have experience in this area”.

READ MORE: Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials – with one condition

Can you grow your own cannabis?

In truth, a number of people cultivate marijuana plants on their balconies or in their (secluded) gardens for their own personal use.

As it turns out, the law allows it, as long as it is a variety of the plant that does not have a narcotic effect — that is, the THC content must be less than 1 percent. 

By the same token, cannabis-based products with THC content of below 1 percent can be brought into Switzerland from abroad.

However, the import rules differ depending on the type of product  it is — flowers, seeds, extracts, oils, or other goods.

How much cannabis is consumed in Switzerland each year?

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to an article in Le Temps, which based its information on a medical study, about 100 tonnes are consumed in the country annually.

Cannabis remains the largest market in terms of volume: it represents 85 percent of drugs consumed in Switzerland, netting between 340, 000 and 500,000 francs per year.

READ MORE: Drugs and alcohol: Just how much do the Swiss consume?

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