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Six things the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us about Switzerland

A person’s — or nation’s — true character is often revealed in time of crisis. In many ways, the pandemic has shown how the Swiss tick when a disaster strikes.

Six things the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us about Switzerland
Only persuasion has been used in Switzerland's vaccination campaign. Valentin FLAURAUD / AFP

Though the Swiss have a reputation of being set in their ways, it turns out they can also be flexible, pragmatic, and adapt to new circumstances amazingly well.

Here are six things the pandemic has revealed about Switzerland and its people. Do you agree? There may be more. Share your own views in the comments section below.

Even in times of crisis, the Swiss go to the ballot box

You’d think that in the midst of a pandemic, the country’s legendary direct democracy would be temporarily put on a back burner.

But no.

In September 2020, when the number of infections in Switzerland was skyrocketing, the Federal Council implemented an emergency legislation, the  Covid-19 Act, which would allow the government to manage the pandemic more extensively than it could under the already existing law.

Among other “powers”, the Act gives authorities the ability to curtail public life (for instance, by imposing various bans and restrictions), to manufacture and distribute Covid vaccines, and to give financial aid to hard-hit businesses and employees.

However, the association called “Friends of the Constitution” filed a referendum against  the Covid-19 Act, saying the legislation gives the authorities too much political power that is not necessary to manage the pandemic.

Swiss people finally resolved the highly contentious issue the way they always do: in a referendum held on June 13th of this year, 60.2 percent of voters approved the emergency legislation. 

Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

In a crisis, the Swiss believe in solidarity

That’s why when the Federal Council ordered a six-week-long confinement in March 2020, along with the shutdown of all non-essential businesses, the Swiss complied with the drastic measures with hardly a squeak.

During this difficult time, they showed community spirit and social responsibility, putting the common good above their own interests.

As Health Minister Alain Berset summed it up, “Switzerland owes its stability to the constant search for a path acceptable to all. This approach proved its worth during the crisis.”

They assert their independence

Even though Switzerland followed many of the European Union’s coronavirus restrictions, such as closure of borders, in other areas it opted to chart its own path — literally and figuratively.

Last winter, while neighbour countries closed their ski areas to curtail the spread of the virus, Switzerland kept its mountain resorts open, stating defiantly that “the Federal Council, the authorities and the tourism industry are convinced that the Swiss way is right”.

By the same token, while nearby nations implemented strict rules which included curfews and restrictions on the distance people could travel from their homes, Switzerland  had none of these measures in place.

This relative laxity has prompted a German  tabloid, Bild, to call Switzerland  a “coronavirus paradise”.

“What is allowed in Switzerland and what is not fits on a beer mat” the tabloid wrote.

Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

The Swiss economy is resilient

Even though the health crisis had plunged Switzerland’s economic activity into a “historic” 8.2-percent slump in 2020, the country still managed to have the world’s most resilient economy, according to research by an insurance and reinsurance company Swiss Re. 

Because of this robustness, Switzerland has managed to rebound faster than many other countries.

Also regarding employment prospects, KOF Economic Institute is predicting “strong job growth in the coming months”, including in the manufacturing and hospitality sectors, which have been significantly impacted by the pandemic.

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

Covid deniers: ‘Röstigraben’ is a real thing

Even though last September Berset  said that the country’s coronavirus skeptic movement, which is highly critical of vaccines and masks, had been “imported from abroad”, he got his geography wrong.

Mostly Swiss activists are behind the movement in Switzerland, though it turned out that deniers are much more vociferous in the Swiss-German part than in the French or Italian speaking regions.

“I have little sympathy for the current tendency to deny the virus, which is causing much suffering worldwide, and even accuse the authorities of dictatorial behaviour. That is absurd. Switzerland is one of the more liberal countries when it comes to corona measures,” Berset declared.

Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Swiss don’t like being told what to do

As The Local recently reported, when it comes vaccines, the government prefers the strategy of persuasion rather than obligation — even for those whose jobs bring them in close contact with vulnerable people.

From the cultural point of view, Swiss people value highly their civil liberties, which include the constitutional right to “self-determination” — the freedom to choose one’s own destiny, including vaccination.

As a Geneva daily, Le Temps, recently wrote in its editorial, “In Switzerland we will never see [president] Guy Parmelin haranguing the people and summoning them to be vaccinated. It is absolutely not in Swiss DNA. Here, we must take into account the different cantonal, cultural or societal sensitivities. The injunction does not work”.

To date, about 48 percent of Switzerland’s population is fully vaccinated — the rate that is lower than in most neighbour countries.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland rejects obligatory vaccinations for some professions

Can you think of other things Covid-19 has taught us about Switzerland? If so, contact us at [email protected]

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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.