What did Switzerland do right and wrong during the coronavirus crisis?

Helena Bachmann in Geneva
Helena Bachmann in Geneva - [email protected] • 15 Jun, 2020 Updated Mon 15 Jun 2020 15:19 CEST
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Now that life in Switzerland is nearly back to normal, it is a good time to look back at what the country did well to contain the virus, and what it could have done better.


Let's start with things that went wrong and which might have contributed to 31,117 coronavirus cases and 1,938 deaths to date. 

According to SonntagsZeitung newspaper, which obtained several reports of various Swiss crisis units, federal authorities initially underestimated the seriousness of the outbreak.

For instance, Daniel Koch, who at the time was the head of the infectious diseases unit at the Federal Department of Public Health (FOPH), mistakenly said on February 24th that "the virus is not transmitted as easily as the flu, so there is a good chance that the situation will be under control".

On the same day, one of Koch's subordinates reportedly argued that the coronavirus represented "a particular threat to public health" and recommended that the Federal Council implement emergency measures to curb the spread of the virus.

However, his warning was initially ignored, and the state of emergency was declared only on March 16th. 

In fact, for several weeks after first Covid-19 cases and deaths occurred in Switzerland, the authorities continued to qualify the situation in the country as "moderate" and did not move to close its borders until mid-March.

According to the documents, the FOPH also believed that Switzerland had sufficient stock of protective materials, which turned out not to be the case, as evidenced by the shortage of masks and hand disinfectant.

Additionally, there had been much debate within the government about the necessity for the public to wear masks, with many experts insisting that it should be made compulsory. But in the end, health authorities have said it was not necessary.


Of course, it is easy to see the errors in hindsight; let's not forget that when the pandemic hit, it was an unprecedented health crisis, so everyone's learning curve was very high.

Now for the positive measures that the Federal Council had taken.

"The Swiss system, with its constant search for compromise, has made it possible to manage the crisis as effectively as centralised systems," Health Minister Alain Berset said an article in LeTemps newspaper

At the end of February, "we wondered if our institutions would be robust enough to withstand the shock of this pandemic, and if our system, known for its slowness, would be able to face an exponentially growing crisis. Today, we have the answer: Switzerland has proven itself", he added.

Berset also attributed the successful handling of the pandemic to "pragmatism, flexibility, calm and humility: the great character traits that are typical of Switzerland and which have been decisive in helping us overcome the crisis".

READ MORE: Switzerland officially ‘the world's safest country' for coronavirus 



"The approach adopted by the Federal Council, which relied on collective intelligence, discernment and individual responsibility, made it possible to avoid extreme measures, at a time when other countries restricted the freedoms of their citizens much more," Berset added, referring to the semi-confinement rather than total lockdown of the population.

Berset also paid tribute to those who continued to work during the pandemic, such as employees in health, childcare and food sectors.

"These are often low-paid jobs where women are overrepresented and working conditions are difficult. We have to correct the inequalities we noticed during the crisis," he added.

A plan for the second wave

One of the lessons authorities learned from the pandemic is how to handle the second wave of infections, which many experts are predicting, with varying degrees of severity, for later in the year.

According to NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, the Federal Council is currently developing a decentralised concept, where measures such as confinement will not be taken on national, but rather on regional, basis. 

Cantons would be in charge of mandating measures, such as quarantine, as may be warranted by the gravity of the outbreak.

If pockets of infections develop in a given area, shops, restaurants, hotels, or even entire villages, could be confined.



Helena Bachmann in Geneva 2020/06/15 15:19

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