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Which Swiss cantons handled the Covid pandemic best — and worst?

Zug did well across all categories in cantonal comparison of pandemic management. Photo by Florian Wehde on Unsplash
Zug did well across all categories in cantonal comparison of pandemic management. Photo by Florian Wehde on Unsplash
Much criticism has been voiced about the way Switzerland has managed the health crisis, especially in regards to delays in implementing various measures. A new study shows which cantons have dealt with coronavirus in the most (and least) effective way.

The study was carried out by Avenir Suisse, a think tank for political, economical and social issues.

It focused on the cantons, rather than the federal government, because “Swiss cantons enjoy a relatively high degree of autonomy by international standards. The way the pandemic has been managed (after the ‘extraordinary situation’ came to an end) is no exception”.

Avenir Suisse analysed how each canton performed in various categories, such as testing and teaching, keeping its healthcare system from being saturated, vaccinations, financial assistance and public school polices during the pandemic.

These are the report’s main findings:

Testing and contact tracing

“To keep a pandemic under control, there is no way around extensive testing in combination with contact tracing (CT)”, Avenir Suisse noted. 

While “only very few cantons have managed to set up an extensive decentralised testing infrastructure”, some did significantly better than others.

Basel-City, Basel-Country, Zug, and Graubunden have been best able to keep the incidence of infection under control, the study found.

 On the other hand, Jura, Neuchâtel, Obwalden, Aargau, St.Gallen, Lucerne and Schwyz “have been confronted with higher incidences because of their more restrained approach” to testing and tracing.

“What has made matters worse is that it has not been possible to assure the flow of information between cantons because they have different contact tracing systems. A nationwide CT system is urgently needed”, the study concluded.

READ MORE: Travel: What are Switzerland’s Covid test requirements?

Vaccinations

Getting the vaccination campaign off the ground has not been without glitches throughout the country, mainly due to delivery delays and, in some cases, poor planning (yes, even in Switzerland).

“Even in the oldest population groups, where high vaccination readiness can be assumed, the cantons moved at varying pace”, according to the study report.

The quickest to vaccinate were Ticino, Zug, and Fribourg; the slowest — Obwalden and Appenzell Innerrhoden — have been behind other cantons and, consequently “yielded only low vaccination rates”.

All the cantons did poorly in their efforts to increase vaccination readiness and disseminate information about the importance of inoculations.

“These were neglected for too long all over Switzerland. The impression of hesitancy was reinforced by the lack of speed displayed in the booster campaign”, Avenir Suisse noted.

READ MORE: Should you get a booster jab in Switzerland or wait for Omicron vaccine?

Healthcare system

The most current situation in Swiss hospitals is not included in the report, but Avenir Suisse found that, overall, “it has been possible to prevent the Swiss healthcare system from becoming completely overwhelmed”.

It added, that “there are, however, considerable differences from canton to canton in the utilisation of intensive care units”.

The effects on other areas of the healthcare system have also varied. For instance, the ‘displacement effect’ due to cancellation and postponement of non-urgent surgeries remained low in Ticino, Lucerne, Geneva, and Vaud.

However, with the exception of Basel-City,  Solothurn, and Graubünden, “the available data indicate that at the height of the pandemic, ‘silent triage’ sometimes occurred in hospitals”.

READ MORE: Should vaccinated people have triage priority in Swiss hospitals?

“The fact that many cantons have been unable to maintain capacity in intensive care units during the crisis does not bode favourably for the further course of the pandemic”, the report said.

Financial ‘hardship’ assistance

The Federal Council put together a financial package covering 70 percent of the funding to support businesses impacted by the pandemic.

Cantons have been responsible for structuring compensation for companies with an annual revenue of less than 5 million francs.

However, many cantons did not get the compensation system right, the study showed.

Only Basel-City, Graubünden, Solothurn, Vaud, and Valais have “calculated compensation strictly in accordance with economic criteria”.

Avenir Suisse pointed out that “since hardship assistance is likely to remain a feature in future crises, it is imperative to reconsider the objective of the mechanism and the demarcation of roles”.

Public schools

The decision to open or close schools lies with the cantons.

After the first wave, the schools remained open in most cantons because “distance learning was such an extraordinarily heavy burden for everyone involved in schooling”.

REVEALED: Why Covid rates in some Swiss cantons are ‘five times’ higher

In order to remain open, schools introduced testing regimes, which – depending on the financial and human resources deployed – had very different scopes.

“In an environment of high case numbers in fall 2021, Zug and Graubünden were the only cantons to test twice a week”, the study found.

What are the study’s conclusions?

Three cantons — Graubünden, Ticino, and Zug – have done well across the board.

“The comparative analysis also shows, however, that in many areas the challenges have been at the limits of what is manageable. The failures have been both self-inflicted and the result of institutional shortcomings in today’s federal system”, Avenir Suisse said. 

To avoid similar problems in the future, the organisation suggests cantons should improve their crisis preparedness and become more aware of possible risks and dangers ahead.

“The cantons’ ability to assume their responsibilities has also been impaired by a lack of clarity in the demarcation of duties between the levels of government and the conferences of cantonal ministers”, Avenir Suisse noted.


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