School kids at the United Nations in Geneva. (Photo: UN)

One would expect Switzerland to lead by example not only because it is the host nation of the World Health Organization, the International Red Cross, the pharmaceutical giants, and the United Nations, but because, well…this is Switzerland.

As the country plans to reopen, Switzerland’s Communicable Diseases Division could prove more dangerous to public health than does the pandemic. At a press conference on 16 April, 2020, the Division’s head, Daniel Koch, spread misleading information about the infection of children, which could put our elderly and vulnerable at an elevated risk of death.  According to Koch, “we can say so far any advice about children is: not only do they not get sick, but they’re not infected, so they’re really not vectors of this disease.  And if there’s anything good in this epidemic, it’s this news: That the children really aren’t affected.” A day later, after much public outcry, he was forced to make a statement recommending that children not mix with their grandparents (or older parents and relatives) because the young ones can still be infected but without symptoms. 

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Daniel Koch, head of Switzerland’s Communicable Diseases Division: Has he been deliberately misrepresenting the truth in order to force a re-opening of the Swiss economy before the pandemic is properly contained? (Photo: Swiss government)

Immediately after Koch went on record, I received calls and texts from many ecstatic parents from the schools my two children attend.  They were cheering the minister’s  statement that kids were suddenly proven to be safe.  So thankful and relieved that children could safely return to school — giving parents desperately needed free time again — they immediately started breaking social distancing rules, throwing a month of self-isolating down the drain. 

No evidence to support the Swiss government’s claim that children cannot contract COVID-19

I tried to persuade the eager parents that the news might be inaccurate, that I have been chronicling this pandemic for months and found no evidence to support Koch’s claim. “You cannot trust the Swiss authorities any more than the Chinese,” I said.  “They lie and worse, put out false numbers.  Keep your kids in quarantine, I said.  And if they have broken quarantine, keep them away from the vulnerable and elderly.”

Sadly, my alarm bells fell on deaf ears.  Many said I was crazy.  What did I know compared to the health ministers? 

Children: the unseen carriers

The only way to fight false news and outright lies is with facts.  I circulated scientific studies and analysis from top international health and disease organizations proving that children have the same chances of being infected as adults.  All evidence shows children rarely display symptoms, but are indeed spreaders of COVID-19.  Moreover, perhaps children are amongst the most dangerous spreaders precisely because they are usually asymptomatic, as well as the most untested demographic.  The biggest study of infected children to date, published in Pediatrics, showed that out of half the 2,143 children observed for symptoms from Jan.16 to Feb.8: 4.4 per cent had none, 50.9 per cent had mild, and 38.8 per cent had moderate symptoms.

Kids are the unseen carriers and are often undetected links in the community transmission chain.  And, since Switzerland’s dangerous and inadequate testing policy is limited to those with symptoms, most infections in children go undetected.  Norwegians and Danes, whose societies are also reopening, have started a Facebook group called, “My child will not be a test rabbit for COVID-19.” And many of those parents are keeping their kids home from school. 

The World Health Organization, which is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, has been consisently calling for proper testing (Photo: WHO/Pierre Virot)

An urgent need to increase testing

Koch’s statement had more to do with economics than health: sending kids to school means parents can go to work. However, in order to secure the safety of our children and teachers going back to school and our workers to work, it is paramount to prioritize an increase of diagnostic testing to know who is positive and who is negative.  

Testing is one of our most important tools in the war to slow and reduce the spread of COVID-19.  It identifies those infected, guiding their medical treatment and isolation, as well as tracing and quarantining their contacts.  Otherwise, we cannot contain the virus we fought so hard to control over these difficult months of isolation.  Testing is the only way to ensure the older generation is not further endangered.

As early as 25 March, 2020, CNN reported that Basel-based Roche Diagnostics said it was distributing 400,000 tests per week to labs in the U.S. Today, the Americans have upped their capacity to test one million people per week.  By April 19, Switzerland had barely tested 216,400 of its entire population. Instead of instructing health care services not to test, perhaps authorities should reroute the tests the business sector is profiting on by selling abroad.   

Switzerland’s leadership needs to be courageous enough to acknowledge the deficiencies in the health care system. It also needs to implement an aggressive wartime plan with increased target production for tests, personal protective equipment and ventilators.  Unfortunately, the government is doing just the opposite by selling out our country to the highest bidders. 

On April 16 — exactly one month after lockdown — Bern announced: “As soon as the number of cases in Switzerland has fallen sufficiently, the cantons will resume the consistent tracing of infection chains.” If the logic sounds twisted, it’s because it is. Once society reopens and people move about, you must aggressively test before and during, not afterwards, in order to contain the spread; otherwise all our efforts, and especially those of frontline workers, will be reversed.

Among the frontline workers facing a well-above-average Covid-19 risk —despite the claims of Dr Koch and HUG (Hospitaux Universitaires de Genève) —are kindergarten teachers, according to recently published U.S. figures.  Visual Capitalist ranked occupational risk scores from 0 to 100 based on three factors gathered from the U.S. Department of Labor:  physical proximity, daily exposure to disease and infections, and contact with others.  Kindergarten teachers rank in the risk group with a score of 65.8.  Not far behind are teacher assistants with 55.8, and education administrators, preschool teachers and child care staff with 55.7.  And ranked just above teachers are bus drivers including school drivers with 67.3.   In the face of such statistics, Dr. Koch needs to reconsider his statements. The obvious solution is to offer tests to all children, teachers and bus drivers who are going back to school.  It seems to me the very least health officials can do.

The government’s new plan talks about an extended testing strategy that will be developed, including an app to track infected persons. While ordinary people were self-quarantining the authorities failed to implement a concrete plan ready for immediate action.This poignant lack of preparedness finally took hold of my parent friends. They apologized after further reading and hearing the ludicrous remarks of government and health officials.  Many told me they couldn’t believe that Koch was actually a doctor. Why is this man making health policy in our country? they asked. And why haven’t these government officials been taken to task by the press or watchdog NGOs?

A plan to return to normalcy but with no proper facilities in place

Now these same parents are scared.  As well they should be. Apart from spreading inaccurate information coupled with inefficient, contradictory strategies, the government has done very little to provide essential safeguards considered worldwide as prerequisites for reopening. 

Unlike other countries starting to reopen, Swiss hospitals have not been adequately equipped, lacking ventilators and medicines in the event of a second wave.  This means people will go back to work with increased chance of infection due to lack of testing, as well as increased chance of dying because hospitals remain unprepared to handle surge capacity in critical cases. 

According to recent reports, Swiss hospitals face shortages of medicine necessary to treat COVID-19 patients. For a country known as the land of pharmaceuticals, the head of the Swiss health ministry resolution team, Patrick Mathys, admitted as much to reporters: “There are real bottlenecks for essential medicines in intensive care… there has been some easing of the situation, but in the long term it’s a huge problem,” he said.

And, there are still no requirements for bus and tram drivers and riders to wear masks.  Furthermore, the official Public Health website advises healthy people not to wear masks. This can lend a sense of “false security,” it maintains. Based on numerous studies, however, masks not only prevent healthy-looking but asymptomatic carriers from spreading the virus, but also help people from getting the virus. 

The Bern authorities appear to be reporting figures that are unrealistically low

Swiss company HeiQ developed a chemical treatment that make masks 100 times more resistant to COVID-19 than untreated masks.  Perhaps instead of instructing people not to wear masks, the authorities should make them available to our citizens. How can a country with a hands-off testing policy, lackadaisical public safeguards, and an ill-prepared ICU network convince parents and teachers that it’s safe to go back to school and its workers that it’s safe to go back to work? 

Unfortunately, most of what we have seen since the outset of the crisis is authorities reporting low infection rates that influenced risky social behaviour causing the infection to spread.

Testing is paramount.  It allows those who test negative to go to work and school with much less risk.  Throughout the crisis, WHO has declared ramped-up testing to be the best way to curb the pandemic.  And throughout the crisis, Switzerland has refused — and still refuses — to abide. For Koch, widespread testing is only applicable at the beginning in order to prevent its spread: “That phase is over in Europe, so this [WHO] strategy is not specifically for Europe or Switzerland.”  It’s important to note that Koch also failed to implement preventive testing at the beginning. 

…and are still peddling herd immunity 

The reason the health authority is so dogged in its determination to go against the tide of science and world epidemiological studies is because Switzerland – as Britain initially did – is among the very few countries still peddling the controversial herd immunization theory.  Federal Council member Alain Berset said: “Until we reach a certain level of immunity in society or have a vaccine, the virus will be with us.”  

Machiavellian in nature, herd immunization subscribes to the idea that the lives of the few (the weak and feeble) are to be sacrificed for the overall benefit of the masses.  Herd immunization assumes that after you are infected you will develop antibodies that make you immune, at least in the short term, to re-infection. And then, over time, the majority of the population will also become immune. While true for certain other viruses, there is no proof this it is the same for the coronavirus although it is possible. The virus is novel, meaning it is new to the world, and we know very little about it. 

Experts caution that having COVID-19 does not mean you will not get it again.  There are reported cases in South Korea in which recovered people initially tested positive, then negative after the symptoms subsided, only to test positive again with reactivated symptoms.  WHO and other epidemiologists warn that we don’t have enough information yet to understand why some people experience reactivation after recovery. 

As we have seen in Sweden and elsewhere, herd immunity is not a good alternative to a vaccine.  The main reason is that people, particularly the elderly, who contract COVID-19 can develop serious, irreversible affects from respiratory failure and die. There are no known antiviral drugs to mitigate symptoms. 

The architect of Sweden’s contentious policy, Dr. Anders Tegnell, gave a chilling comment when asked about the increase of death in his country: “It is not a failure for the overall strategy, but it is a failure to protect our elderly who live in care homes,” he noted. Should we sacrifice our old and vulnerable when they need us most?  Herd immunization unnecessarily kills our older population, like cows led to slaughter.

Propaganda is a powerful tool, and the Swiss government has been using it throughout this crisis to convince people that untruths are true.  As a result of its failed response and continued mishaps (See My Coronavirus Story about Verbier noting that local doctors had warned Bern two weeks beforehand to close the resort because of the rising number of tourists infected. Some of these returned home and were thus never included in Swiss statistics). Switzerland holds the unenviable lead-position among nations of the highest infection rate per capita — and that for the longest time. A nation of 8.6 million people, it has more than 27,400 infected.  

The presumption that the world can expect more from Switzerland, that it will lead by example, is a myth.  It hosts the World Health Organization and yet disregards its most critical recommendations.  “Test test test,” goes WHO’s mantra. “No, no, no,” remains the Swiss response.  Death for the sake of the economy is not humane.  We need to use our economy and human capital to help save lives, not sacrifice them.

Related links

25 June 2020. Did the Swiss government listen to the right experts in the Corona crisis? The Geneva Observer. Translation and updating of the Neue Zuercher Zeitung investigation. “Daniel Koch’s aversion to external scientists might have been the main reason why the Federal Council dithered for such a long time. […] On April 29, the government announces it will ease restrictions earlier than planned. As of May 11, not only shops, markets and schools will reopen, but also museums, libraries, and restaurants can open. Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga, like [Health Minister Alain] Berset a Socialist, justifies the surprising decision by the decline in the number of infections. She says nothing about the intense [commercial and restaurant business] lobbying that took place behind the doors.” (LINK)

Andy Cohen is a documentary film-maker, journalist and author based in Geneva. For more information on Andy Cohen’s film Ximei (2019), please click here to view an extract. To contact Cohen at AC Films, please go to his website.

Andy Cohen.

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