Swiss army ‘on the front lines’ in coronavirus battle

Swiss army reservists have been called up once again to help do battle against one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Europe.

Swiss army 'on the front lines' in coronavirus battle
Members of the Swiss army. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

“This is a new effort which is being asked of you. The army has been requested to help” combat the virus, Lieutenant-Colonel Raul Barca told about 100 freshly-mobilised reservists, all wearing facemasks.

Small groups of men and women from the “Hospital 2 Battalion”, some carrying rifles on their shoulders, arrived in military trucks on Sunday at the Moudon military base in the Vaud region of western Switzerland.

All of them had received a call or text message from the army on Friday giving them 48 hours' notice to report for a deployment that could last until the end of March.

Their work on the Covid front line is set to start on Tuesday. During the first wave of the pandemic, which hit Europe in the spring, the Swiss army was called in to help out the country's 26 regional cantons.

However, this time, “the situation is different… the hospital staff are more affected, tired”, Barca told the troops on the parade ground. In total, more than 200 reservists — who underwent four months of health training — reported for duty on Sunday to support Swiss hospitals which are saturated with the arrival of new Covid-19 patients.

David Moreira, 21, a security guard in Geneva who completed his military service earlier this year, was preparing to tackle his first engagement in the field.

“I received the mobilisation order when I came back from work,” he said, adding that he was enthusiastic about the “idea of helping” the public.


Deaths doubling 

Florine Orth, 25, who works in the watchmaking sector in Biel, northwestern Switzerland, was calm about her first call-up.

Her only concern was that “we don't know what state the patients will be in,” she told AFP, nonetheless feeling “great pride” in taking part in the fight against the pandemic.

Since the start of October, Covid-19 hospitalisations, intensive care admissions and deaths have been roughly doubling in Switzerland every week. And the number of positive tests is exploding.

This weekend, Geneva was the worst-affected region in Europe in terms of the incidence of confirmed new cases over the past 14 days, according to statistics compiled by Swiss public television.

The rate on Monday stood at 2,724 positive tests per 100,000 people over the previous fortnight in Geneva.

Overwhelmed by the virus, Geneva and the nearby western cantons of Wallis, Bern, Vaud and Fribourg sought out the support of the military, whose members will help relieve the burden of ambulance workers and provide basic care to coronavirus patients.

Around 170 volunteer soldiers are already at work in Fribourg. To cope with the influx of coronavirus patients, some of those in intensive care are being transferred to less-crowded hospitals in the east.

Time for action

Considered one of the founding pillars of the famously-neutral country, the Swiss army is organised like a militia.

Overseen by a few thousand professionals, conscripts do at least four months' military service before being called up every year for three-week training sessions. 

During the first wave of the pandemic, the army said it could mobilise up to 8,000 soldiers to help relieve the pressure on hospitals in the country of 8.5 million people.

Following criticisms of the way that deployment was handled — some soldiers complained of not having been given enough to do — the procedure for calling in the army has been revised.

This time, the government decided to mobilise only up to 2,500 soldiers, and on condition that cantons make the request and can show that “civilian resources have been exhausted”.

However, this time there is no question of the soldiers being under-employed.

“They need work and they need action that will be useful both for the hospitals and for themselves,” said Yvon Langel, the commander of 1 Territorial Division. Nearby, the called-up reservists fill out a health questionnaire.

They then head to the army pharmacy for a temperature check, flu jab and a Covid-19 test. All being well, they will be serving in Switzerland's hospitals on Tuesday.

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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?