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

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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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