What has changed in Switzerland since the first Covid-19 case was detected?

It may seem like much longer, but it has been 12 months to the day since coronavirus made its presence known in Switzerland. What have we learned - and how has our life changed - since then?

What has changed in Switzerland since the first Covid-19 case was detected?
Masks are part of our everyday lives. Photo by AFP

On February 25th, 2020, Switzerland announced its first case of Covid-19: a Ticino resident infected in northern Italy, which at that point was the European hotspot of this new virus.

Swiss authorities said at the time that coronavirus “presents only a moderate risk for the general public”, an assessment which proved, in hindsight, to be wrong.

Within three weeks, a state emergency was declared, the population was confined, schools were closed, and the borders shut. Only grocery stores, pharmacies and health facilities were kept open.

When these measures were taken, Switzerland recorded 2,200 cases and 14 deaths. One year on, nearly 553,000 infections and almost 9,250 deaths have been reported

IN PICTURES: One year of coronavirus in Switzerland

The authorities made some mistakes in the early stages of the pandemic — errors that could have possibly prevented a number of contaminations.

Most notably, while neighbouring countries made masks compulsory in public places between April and May, Switzerland insisted there was no evidence that masks protected from virus transmission. 

This advice was reportedly given because Switzerland only had two and a half weeks of stocks available at the start of the outbreak.

“At the height of the pandemic, the Federal Council’s position on masks varied depending on the stock available in the country,” Swiss media reported at the time.

The change in strategy happened at the end of April, when 90 million masks ordered by the army arrived in Switzerland and health officials advised the population to wear a mask when the physical distance of 1.5 metres couldn’t be respected.

But the government didn’t make masks mandatory until July 6th, when they became compulsory on all public transportation in Switzerland. 

Now, of course, masks are ubiquitous and it’s hard to remember a time when they were not part of our daily lives.

Here’s what we learned over the past year:

When the going gets tough, people buy toilet paper.

Within days of the announcement of emergency measures, the toilet paper supply across Switzerland was snapped up by panicked shoppers, causing shortages not only of this item, but also of non-perishable staples like rice, flour, sugar, hand disinfectant, and soap. 

The hidden side of Geneva: poverty

It was a phenomenon previously unknown in wealthy Switzerland: thousands of residents – predominantly undocumented immigrants and single parents —queuing up to receive bags of groceries and other necessities from social organisations. 

The food distribution, which continued for several weeks, laid bare the poverty in one of the world’s richest cities.

READ MORE: Almost one in ten live in poverty in Switzerland: Report

Working from home went mainstream

Prior to the pandemic, few people worked from home. However, the trend was accelerated during the first wave of coronavirus outbreak, when Swiss authorities recommended that people leave their residences as rarely as possible.

More recently, on January 18th, the Federal Council made working from home compulsory whenever possible. 

Consequently, the number of job vacancies with the option of working from home has almost quadrupled in Switzerland since the beginning of the health crisis.

READ MORE: Covid-19: How the pandemic has triggered a boom in home working jobs in Switzerland

The importance of testing

In the first three months of the pandemic, the rate of Covid tests in Switzerland was about 54 tests per 100,000 population. In December 2020, that number rose nearly ten-fold to 524 /100,000.

As tests became more widespread and available, more cases have been detected and positive individuals isolated, preventing the number of infections from further increasing.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How does Switzerland’s mass testing scheme work? 

We underestimated the demand for vaccines

When news of vaccine development was first reported, studies showed a high degree of vaccine skepticism among Switzerland’s population.

But when the vaccination programme was rolled out in January, it became obvious that demand may soon outstrip supply.

The government’s promises about vaccines’ efficacy motivated an increasing number of people to get the jab, and the waiting lists for the shot are long in many Swiss regions.

“Expectations have been created that cannot be fulfilled with the current quantities of vaccines. This provokes a lot of strife in the population,” said Thurgau health director Urs Martin. 

The biggest lesson of all: even the well-organised Swiss can’t micromanage a pandemic

The Swiss like to be prepared for any kind of disaster, and have all kinds of contingency plans in place to manage whatever catastrophe may befall them.

But coronavirus taught everyone – authorities and public alike — that an unexpected and unprecedented health crisis will wreak havoc with the best laid plans.

Uncertainty will prevail and mistakes will be made, but hopefully the lessons learned will not be lost.

Member comments

  1. I really cannot understand why such a forward thinking, financially secure country should take so long to deliver the COVID 19 vaccine to its population. Buying stocks of vaccine to sell on when its own population is in dire need confounds me. Maybe it’s because a higher than expected number of its population still think it’s not necessary, after all the pandemic isn’t real…right? What will convince the doubters, maybe being in a ventilator will bring home the truth.

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OUTLOOK: Could Switzerland introduce Covid rules this autumn?

After several months of a relatively low number of coronavirus cases in Switzerland, the rate of infections rose by over 22 percent in a span of seven days this week. What measures are Swiss health officials planning to prevent a new wave?

OUTLOOK: Could Switzerland introduce Covid rules this autumn?

The Swiss government has said that “further waves of infections are to be expected in the fall/winter of 2022/2023″.

As in previous waves, “the main objective of managing the pandemic is to prevent an overload of the health system. It is currently difficult to predict the magnitude of the waves of infection and, therefore, the burden on the healthcare system”, it added.

According to current estimates, “it can be assumed that ordinary structures will be sufficient to manage the situation”.

However, unless new, deadly variants emerge in the near future, health officials  expect the new wave to be milder than the ones  that struck in the winter of 2020 and 2021.

There are several reasons for this optimism:

Higher immunity

Due to vaccinations and infections, “it is estimated that 97 percent of the Swiss population has been in contact with the virus”, which means that “immunity within the population is currently high”, authorities said.

Lighter course

This means that unlike the early Covid strains like Alpha and Delta, which were highly virulent, the latest dominant mutation — Omicron and its subvariants — while highly contagious, are also less dangerous for most people.

New vaccines

The new version of the Moderna vaccine, which should better target certain sub-variants of Omicron, will be rolled in Switzerland from October 10th.

Compared to the original vaccine, which was effective mostly against early strains and offered no protection against Omicron, “the new vaccine produces a stronger immune response against the Omicron variants BA.1 and BA.4/5″, according to the drug regulatory body, Swissmedic.

READ MORE: BREAKING: Switzerland approves new Covid-19 boosters

Is the government planning any specific measures this winter?

While the severity of the new wave is not yet known, authorities have made several ‘just-in-case’ provisions by, for instance, extending the Covid-19 law until June 2024.

This legislation, which was approved in a referendum in November 2021, allows the Federal Council to maintain and apply emergency measures that are necessary to manage the pandemic. Without the extension, ithe law would lapse in December of this year.

READ MORE: Covid-19 law: How Switzerland reacted to the referendum results

“No one wants to reactivate the Covid law. But after two years of the pandemic, we have understood that we must be ready”, said MP Mattea Meyer.

While no mask mandates or other restrictions are being discussed at this time, the re-activated legislation would allow the authorities to quickly introduce any measures they deem necessary, according to the evolution of the epidemiological situation.

More preparations from the cantons

As it would be up to the cantons to apply measures set by the federal government, some have asked that financing be made available in case regional hospitals have to again accommodate patients from other cantons.

They are also making sure enough intensive care beds are ready for Covid patients.

What about the Covid certificate and tracing?

Though it is no longer used in Switzerland, the certificate continues to be required abroad.

The government will ensure its international compatibility.

The legal basis for the SwissCovid tracking app will also remain in force and can be reactivated during the winter of 2023/2024, if necessary.

MPs are also debating possible rules to be enforced for cross-border workers in the event of border closures.