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Update 5 March 2021: Swiss government to offer free coronavirus tests for all (LINK). First published 3 March 2021.

Cartoon by contributing editor Jeff Danziger, a member of Global Geneva media partner, Cartooning for Peace Foundation.

See our Special Youth Writes Corona Section with ideas and experiences for young people. Plus information and links on how to cope with the pandemic: the best recreation, sports and movies but also finding an internship, organizing your studies and dealing with depression. Remember: you are not alone. FOR UPDATES: go to Youth Nuse.

For such a wealthy country boasting one of the planet’s leading pharmaceutical and medical research hubs, Switzerland has dealt fairly poorly with the corona crisis. As one commentator on Swiss radio recently noted, while the Swiss have always been strong in advising developing nations what to do in cases of outbreaks, it failed to take appropriate action at home. It was largely ill-prepared with its own counter-measures during the first surge in early 2020 costing serious loss of life and then, despite ample warning, neglected to respond properly during the second last autumn.  The Swiss price comparison site comparis.ch has even argued Switzerland needs to set up a high-level Crisis Board immediately to manage “the hitherto unsatisfactory test and vaccination strategy” (LINK in German).

Though a non-member of the European Union and thus not part of the organization’s group policy toward obtaining vaccines, Switzerland has barely managed to vaccinate more than two per cent of its population, a disaster when compared to Israel, UK and even the United States. Pressured by economic concerns, the Swiss government has rushed to reopen schools, much to the alarm of parents, while its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Test” policy has endangered its older generation (LINK).

Little of this situation has found its way into the Swiss press. The government has regularly failed to meet social needs or to communicate its policy, let alone its justifications, apart from comforting assertions. One Swiss reporter even reportedly received death threats when she voiced criticism too forthrightly during an interview with a senior government official.

By 26 February the Swiss press was simply telling people to be patient, even if they have to wait till mid-May or mid-July for vaccination. Meanwhile, various vaccination centres in different parts of Switzerland have virtually halted inoculations for lack of vaccines. And rebellion has grown in restaurants, ski resorts, among festival organizers and the Alt-Wrong movement of anti-vaxxers and no-maskers.

Compared to certain other countries, such as Israel and more recently, the United Kingdom, Switzerland has not done particularly well. By the end of February, 2021, barely 2 per cent of the country’s over eight million people had been vaccinated. (Photo: NASA)

Practical responses

The Swiss have made great play of its widely promoted contact-tracing app. But it’s reported that only 1.7 million people have hooked up with the Swiss COVID App, a long way from the herd acceptance that would make it really useful in infection tracing. It sends out about 130 warnings a day. One user even produced an English Internet video report on its confusing messages: 32 alerts could mean an alert 32 times from one person’s cellphone hooked into yours by bluetooth. One unsolved problem is that it doesn’t work on popular earlier versions of cellphones. At the beginning of March 2021, Swiss media were reporting it might be scrapped since only 20% of the population had adopted the system, and the alerts are taking four days to come through.

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As for testing, only on 28 January 2021 did the Federal Council announce that “In certain situations people without symptoms are also to be tested” (what situations?). How much self-ordered testing will cost is not capped. The Government says only that prices can vary.

Switzerland is finally acknowledging its disastrous number of coronavirus deaths (nearly 10,000): on 5 March (see our article of 12 January) the country held a minute’s silence at 11:59 am and church bells at noon on the proposal of 2021’s president Guy Parmelin, supported by the main Christian groups. This is one year to the day since the first recorded death in Switzerland from COVID-19, a woman of 74 in the canton of Vaud (LINK in French).

On 1 March the head of this country’s branding agency admitted that its reputation has taken a hit during the pandemic, particularly for allowing winter resorts to stay open when their neighbours shut down such virus superspreaders (LINK).

What is the reason for Switzerland’s poor official performance? The Swiss information portal swissinfo.ch reported on 24 January that a crisis management specialist has concluded: “Too many conductors make pandemic management difficult” in what was once considered as a model in fighting pandemics.

“The ‘Swiss way’ – characterized by a liberal approach with far-reaching powers for the cantons – does not seem to succeed. The Confederation is one of the countries most affected by the virus, with one of the highest rates of infection and mortality in Europe,” it said.

Andrea Arcidiacono, the crisis management specialist, who has just published a book on the situation in Italian, told swissinfo: “The cantons have not lived up to the expectations placed on them. Perhaps the Federal Council has given the cantons too much confidence – perhaps it was a little naive” (LINK).

He praised Alain Berset, the Minister responsible for health and much criticized in recent months, pointing out that decisions are by the whole cabinet, adding: “I appreciated his ability to correct mistakes.”

In a comment that echoes what Global Geneva has said (LINK), Arcidiacono warns: “The difficulty, especially in this second phase of the pandemic, is to find a consensus between advocates of a hard line and those for whom economic interests are paramount.”

In fact, he gives the government an easy ride. In hindsight, as at the time, it would have been much more effective in putting a brake on infections if authorities had provided free tests to all visitors entering Switzerland and anyone here who wanted it.

Instead, the Government insisted only those with symptoms should obtain tests, and they are still not automatically free. For a government that has had to pump in CHF90 billion in support to its economy it would have been a small price. Extending the lockdown measures are likely to cost Switzerland’s population CHF500 million a week in lost income.

The government’s choice of whom to vaccinate was also notably short-sighted. All those who had unavoidable contact with many people, particularly those from other countries, should have been tested and given vaccinations. With 90 per cent of deaths among the over-75s, these were clearly a priority. But were these people in retirement homes or individuals elsewhere? We don’t know, and we should.

In any case, United Nations personnel should have been a priority in Switzerland. Some are convinced their dreadful infections before March 2021 were probably coronavirus but they have not been tested or given vaccines. It should not have been left to Geneva, rather than federal authorities, to take action with international organizations.

Frontier workers, health and care workers, mail delivery personnel and retail employees should also have been a major focus. Would it have been so difficult to test them? Given the current infection rate of 4 per cent of the population, it would have been worth it to reduce the all-important reproduction rate to below 1 per cent. Restaurants and meeting places could probably have opened much earlier as a result.

What next?

What is the policy now that virulent new variants have appeared? Universal testing? We have no idea, and no sign from the Federal Council that it has any particular plan. In the meantime, the National Council has reflected the economic pressure from Swiss business by passing a nonbinding resolution pushing for restaurants, cinemas and fitness clubs from 22 March (LINK in French), though gyms are known hotspots for passing on the virus (LINK).

Friends and colleagues who suffered from the coronavirus (a few) have taken months to recover. It’s not been like flu. And they are not over the effects yet. Swiss society, like others, doesn’t seem to have done much to take this aspect into account, one among many failures of Swiss media in the pandemic (LINK).

The economic commission of the Swiss National Council has even proposed that the Cabinet and Parliament should only source of information on steps to control outbreaks, effectively muzzling the scientific task force (LINK). Not surprisingly, this move has caused outrage among many academics, and the lower house of parliament backed away from the proposal on 9 March.

‘Swiss youth hit hard’

swissinfo.ch reported on 16 February 2021 that “The pandemic hits Swiss youth particularly hard” (LINK). “The Corona measures put a strain on the young in Switzerland. The limitation of social life affects them, because real encounters are an important part of their identification, says one expert.” Psychological counselling is reported to have increased by 40 per cent and almost 60 per cent of 15-34 year-olds questioned in a January survey said they felt isolated and lonely in society, more than any other age group (PDF LINK in German).

A November 2020 survey of 14,000 people by the University of Basel, during the so-called “second wave” of coronavirus in Switzerland, found severe depressive symptoms reached 29% among 14-24 year-olds, twice as much as those aged 45-54.

Unemployment

At the end of January 2021, swissinfo notes, unemployment in Switzerland was the worst in 10 years, and for under-25s the rate was 40% more than a year before, a total of 17,766 in a country that prides itself on high employment figures (LINK in German).     

It is difficult to find up-to-date information on the education impact. The OECD gave Switzerland relatively good report but that was in September 2020 (LINK), and it was hardly a critical analysis. The Swiss-Italian University (USI) switched to distance learning easily because of its e-Lab and no course days were lost as of June 2020 (LINK).

But even then, students were complaining of missing their peers and finding it harder to maintain concentration and organization. And the laudatory article on swiss.info was matched by an anonymous contributor before comments were turned off:

‘Students left to fend for themselves’

“The university, and specifically the board of directors, has done less than the bare minimum to handle this situation. They left students to fend for themselves, with low quality teaching and home environment that is not fit for studying. I think this exam session would show what a sham this semester has been, with incredibly high fail rate and dropout rate. For the university with the highest tuition fee in Switzerland (4000 CHF per semester), and the least amount of academic recognition, you would expect that they offer high quality education. Not even that” (LINK).

What has Switzerland offered to young people to counteract such effects? Rather than go canton by canton detailing what is offered, we offer some online links that can help young people. We’ve divided the sections into: experiences, psychology, lockdown life, communication, entertainment, opportunities, studies, aids, and planning for the future.

Our idea is that the best way to dealing with lockdown blues can be to communicate, take up new activities, study something (even if it is something you would not find time for in a non-COVID time), and plan for post-COVID.

Go to our Youth Writes Special Corona Section for further information and ideas

Coronavirus watch

7 March 2021. Téléverbier announced it is shutting its cable car service to two ski areas a month early from 7 March, having lost 25% of its business this season. Other resorts are doing the same (LINK in French).

5 March 2021. SWISS announced that COVID restrictions have resulted in a 65% loss of business, its first deficit in 15 years, and it is still losing CHF2m a day. It plans to restore nearly 70% of its service this year, with a CHF1.5 billion loan from the Swiss government, but is cutting its fleet and abolishing the equivalent of 1,000 jobs (LINK in French).

4 March 2021. The Largest Privately Held Island in the Bahamas Heads for Auction. “Demand for private islands and island properties has increased significantly over the course of the pandemic, as ultra-high-net-worth individuals continue to work remotely, and many island nations maintain enviably low infection rates” (LINK)

4 March 2021. Coronavirus cases rising again in Switzerland and Valais (LINK in French). New variants and rush to ski resorts blamed. Zermatt region remains a hotspot. Schools were also reported as a source of infections. The national reproduction rate is back above 1. Delays in supplies at the national level has resulted in the Valais putting back its expectations of vaccinating all vulnerable inhabitants from spring to mid-June. The second priority group (essentially the middle-aged and carers) will have to wait till then. The percentage of Valais emergency carers who have agreed to vaccination has been about 80%, according to the main hospital. The immunity score for French-speaking Switzerland has been around 20%, though dates for these percentage vary (the Vaud has a better record). The Valais has not carried out such research but it is thought to be the same.

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