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ANALYSIS: What has Switzerland done right and wrong in managing the Covid pandemic?

ANALYSIS: What has Switzerland done right and wrong in managing the Covid pandemic?
Moderna is one of the vaccines used in Switzerland's immunisation campaign. Photo by Steve Parsons / POOL / AFP
Swiss authorities announced this week the lifting of many Covid-related restrictions that have been in force for weeks or months. Does this mean the country did everything right to curb the spread of coronavirus?

While announcing which measures would be eased from May 31st, the Federal Council remarked that relaxations “go further than originally planned”.

The reason for this positive development, authorities said, is that the epidemiological situation in Switzerland has much improved in the past few weeks, with the number of infections, hospitalisations and deaths falling sharply across the country.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What Covid measures will Switzerland relax from Monday?

“Each passing day brings us closer to the end of this pandemic ”, said Health Minister Alain Berset.

Judging by this and other comments that Berset made about the positive evolution of the pandemic, it may appear that the government is taking credit for managing the health crisis the right way.

However, the Federal Council has also made some mistakes along the way, which some would argue is understandable given the unprecedented nature of the outbreak.

These are some notable ones.

The government initially underestimated the seriousness of the outbreak

On February 24th 2020, just as the first coronavirus case was detected in Switzerland, Daniel Koch, who at the time was the head of the infectious diseases unit at the Federal Department of Public Health (FOPH), mistakenly said 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. 

Mask requirement was enforced too late

There had been much debate within the government about the necessity for the public to wear masks. But even as other countries implemented this requirement, Swiss health authorities still insisted this measure was not necessary. 

From mid-March until the end of April 2020, when the Covid outbreak was at its worst, “asking people to wear a mask permanently outside… doesn’t work for Switzerland,” Swiss president Simonetta Sommaruga said at the time

The minutes from the meetings of the government’s crisis units show that at the beginning of the outbreak Switzerland only had two and a half weeks of stocks available.

“At the height of the pandemic, the Federal Council’s position on masks varied depending on the stock available in the country,” Le Matin Dimanche reported.

The change in strategy happened at the end of April, when 90 million masks ordered by the army arrived in Switzerland.

“A week later, the FOPH advised the population to wear a mask when the physical distance of 1.5 metres couldn’t be respected,” the newspaper reported.

Masks eventually became compulsory in Switzerland in July.

Lifting restrictions too early

In the summer of 2020, after the first-wave infections started to decline, the government re-opened much of the economy.

However, infections started to soar soon after, morphing into the second wave by the fall.

Berset admitted in December that the government made mistakes in managing the pandemic. “We were too lax and far too optimistic”, he said.

But as time went by and more information became available about the virus, authorities adopted a more measured approach. Here’s what Switzerland did right.

Widespread tests

In March of this year, the government implemented a free mass testing scheme, even for those who had no coronavirus symptoms.

In addition, every resident is entitled to five free ‘home tests’ each month.

With the screening scheme, more contaminations were detected, leading to more people being put in quarantine and isolation, thus preventing the virus from spreading.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about Switzerland’s free coronavirus tests for every resident

Vaccines

Switzerland began its free inoculation rollout on January 4th, ordering millions of doses of Moderna and Pfizer / Biontech vaccines early on.

Despite some delivery delays in the winter and spring, the country managed to fully vaccinate more than 1.5 million people to date, and the programme is going full speed with the government promising to inoculate everyone who wants it by summer.

How do we know Switzerland is on the right path?

“There are almost no more Covid patients over 75 years of age in hospitals and, despite the reopening of shops and terraces, the cases have not increased again”, noted Geneva epidemiologist Alessandro Diana. 


Member comments

  1. How come such a small, and one of the richest countries in the world was so late in vaccinating all its people?? Look at Israel and UAE, they were far ahead of us. All my friends’ children in the US are fully vaccinated while I have plenty of friends in their late 40s who are still waiting for vaccination appointments in Switzerland. Also, it was absolutely ridiculous that there were 26 different registration systems in a tiny little country. And the limited number of doses was not distributed fairly among the cantons. While some cantons were already vaccinating young people, some other cantons were/are still trying to vaccinate their older populations. It was also unbelievable that the vaccination did not continue during Easter Break – this is a pandemic and once in a life time event. I wonder how the Swiss government felt if the vaccine manufacturers told the rest of the world that they are going to take a break to allow the people to rest. Of course people should rest but then you plan accordingly. For a country that is recognized around the world for being so structured and disciplined, there were many failings that should be carefully analyzed. Also, it is incredible that the whole health care system is not fully digitalized yet.

  2. It is very unclear what the criteria are for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in this article – a more balanced view of what the risks were, and what were the trade-offs between mental and physical health would be welcome.

  3. Thanks for pointing out the failures, which were substantial. I hope the Swiss government learns from this experience — thousands of lives wasted, and millions of francs. These loses could have been avoided.

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