OPINION: Why has Switzerland been so slow in introducing new Covid measures?
Even though the number of coronavirus infections in Switzerland has been skyrocketing and some hospitals are becoming crowded with Covid patients, the Federal Council has been slow in implementing stricter rules. Why is this?
Last week, Switzerland won an unenviable reputation of the fifth country in the world with the highest seven-day incidence of new coronavirus cases, according to Our World in Data figures collected by Swiss media.
Daily cases have been exceeding the 10,000-mark, hotbeds of infection have been detected in a number of schools, and ICUs across the country have started to feel the impact of the deteriorating epidemiological situation, causing non-urgent surgeries and other treatments to be cancelled in order to accommodate Covid patients.
But while Austria, Germany and other countries in Europe have taken proactive measures weeks ago to rein in the spread of coronavirus, Switzerland has been dragging its feet in mandating tighter rules.
“A strange serenity reigns in the political world”, Blick wrote on Monday.
The newspaper pointed out that “the debate over the 2G rule dragged on for several weeks before the Federal Council finally decided on new measures”.
Several factors contribute to Switzerland notorious slowness in decision-making.
One is that the federal government must consult with cantons before implementing nationwide restrictions, and this process can take a while, especially since political manoeuvring is at play behind the scenes and, as Blick pointed out, some “cantons reacted defiantly” to federal proposals.
As a result, “some cantons have even refused to strengthen at the national level measures which they themselves had already introduced”.
Another important factor is direct democracy. The government wanted to wait to take more drastic measures until after the Covid-19 referendum of November 19th, in which voters weighed in on the future of Covid certificate.
There is also another reason: “If the Federal Council acts too quickly, the parliament will not support it”, Blick writes.
Yet some claim that Switzerland’s slowness may actually be a positive thing, at least in some areas of pandemic management.
For instance, some governments that have acted quickly and decisively in rolling out their vaccination programmes and implementing restrictions have had to re-think their strategies, as the epidemiological situation is changing day by day.
“The decision to forgo the AstraZeneca vaccine and wait for the mRNA vaccines turned out to be good in retrospect. Likewise, the decision not to lengthen the interval between doses of the vaccine, despite political pressure, has proved its worth”, an MP told the Blick.
Still, looking back, there are examples when Switzerland was dilly-dallying while other countries got all their ducks in the row to fight the pandemic.
One such ‘epic failure’ was the delay in mandating masks in indoor places.
From mid-March until the end of April 2020, when the Covid outbreak was at its worst and other countries implemented this requirement, Swiss health authorities still insisted this measure was not necessary.
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 at the time.
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, months after other countries.
The slowness has also been evident in making the vaccines, as well as booster doses, available to general public, putting Switzerland behind many European countries yet again.