Some cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating have re-opened in Switzerland, such as this one in Versoix near Geneva. However, many have not as it is economically not worth the cost. Instead, the restaurant associations are pushing the Swiss government for a complete re-opening, including inside areas. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Agent Provocateur is Global Insight Magazine’s oped component. This is open to invited writers or those organizations that contribute to Global Geneva Group. All content, however, must meet our editorial standards.

Switzerland was my “safe place”. The one thing so many people say about Switzerland (apart from being beautiful) is that “it’s so safe”.  It may not always be the most exciting country, but it has always been safe.  Having previously lived in unstable and undemocratic countries elsewhere in the world, Switzerland’s reassuring safety was always something that I treasured every time I returned. (See Rachael Reilly’s January 2021 article in Global Geneva)

With the premature re-opening of many aspects of Swiss life on 19 April 2021, all this changed. 

We are now over one year into a global pandemic, a health crisis of proportions not witnessed in the world for over 100 years.  It hit us all by surprise. In the beginning, we knew so little. We had scant reliable information, we made mistakes and, sometimes we got it wrong. But that was understandable, even excusable. It was so new and unknown.

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A failure to observe reliable information

One year later, however, we no longer have the excuse of ignorance, least of all in a country with such outstanding specialists and strong scientific traditions as Switzerland.  We have data, advice and the experience of other countries on which to base decisions. 

So why did the Swiss Government – with just 8 per cent of its population fully vaccinated and a third wave hitting the country with a more infectious and deadly strain of the virus – decide to buck the trend of all its closest neighbours and re-open practically everything?  (See BMJ article as well as CBC report) Why, with the same numbers of daily infections currently as the UK (a country eight times its size) and the British variant now dominant, is Switzerland doing this? The country has an R rate of well over 1, while one quarter of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds are occupied with COVID-19 patients, the majority of them under the age of 60. Furthermore, there is a test positivity rate of 8 per cent.

Have the Swiss stopped following rules?

Why did Switzerland decide to re-open now?  Not one of the Swiss government’s own five benchmarks for lifting restrictions were met. Nevertheless, they still opted to go ahead. Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset reportedly did not even bother to consult the country’s Scientific Task Force in the six weeks leading up to the decision, prompting at least one of its members to resign. (See article) For the regulation-conscious Swiss, this raises eyebrows about following rules in the future, such as all those ordinances about sorting your rubbish into the right bins or not mowing your lawn on Sundays. 

There is only one answer to this question and it is a deeply uncomfortable one.  The Swiss government has all the necessary information and data at its disposal. It also knows the risks. And yet, it caved, largely because of the enormous pressure from powerful business lobby groups, right-wing political parties and an impatient population. Berset himself described the re-openings as a “calculated risk” and said: “If today’s decision is being interpreted in a way that we now can be easier about everything, we’ll face a catastrophe…”.  (Editor’s Note: Repeated requests over past months by Global Insight for interviews with Berset about the manner with which Switzerland has handled, or mishandled, the coronavirus were either refused or ignored. Almost Third World style, Bern seemed to feel no need to act transparently. Nor has the bulk of the Swiss press reported critically about the government’s handling of the crisis. See Global Geneva background article)

The Swiss Government knows that re-opening so much with so few people vaccinated will almost surely result in more deaths, sickness and potential long-term ill-health impacts for younger people. It calculated these risks and went ahead anyway.

Will the ‘new’ normal be the same as the ‘old’ with activities such as the Geneva Book Fair? Switzerland and other countries would like it to be, but health specialists such as the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Special Envoy David Nabarro warn that those governments proceeding too quickly and without the right precautions could delay the process by years. Crucial, too, are worldwide vaccinations against coronavirus.

The feeling of safety is gone

For the first time, I now do not feel so safe in Switzerland. Governments are supposed to protect their populations.  That’s why we have traffic rules and speed limits, food safety regulations, a penal code and sentencing rules for violent crimes.  We should be able to trust our leaders to protect their populations, including younger people, especially during a health emergency.  This reckless decision to re-open early is a dereliction of the government’s duty to protect.

It has become everyone for themselves in Switzerland. Even the mirage of solidarity has disappeared. It is all down to individual choice.  People have told me: “You don’t have to go out or participate in the re-opening, just stay at home if you’re worried…” But not everyone has the liberty or privilege to make those choices. People have to go to work or school. We know that we are all at risk from the consequences of increased social movement and interactions.

Charging into the abyss

It’s not that I am against re-opening. As with everyone else, I want to eat in a restaurant, have a drink with friends, go to the cinema or theatre. Okay, personally I can live without gyms, karting, indoor bowling, laser games and all the other host of indoor things we know to be unsafe. But we could have done it properly, and without risk, just like last summer.  We only had to wait a few more weeks for the vaccination campaign to take off and a critical threshold of fully jabbed adults to be reached. Just a bit more patience.  Why jeopardize everything now? Instead, we have proceeded without a roadmap linked to vaccination targets as well as ignored the five benchmarks designed to ensure a safe next step as part of our return to ‘normal’.

I am very grateful to Switzerland for prioritizing education and keeping the schools open; unlike other countries education here has been almost uninterrupted, which has been so beneficial for children and young people.  I am also very thankful for the vaccine that I shall receive this week.  But I no longer feel that ensuring everyone’s health and safety is the government’s priority. Instead, it feels now like it’s each for their own.

Rachael Reilly is an independent humanitarian/human rights consultant who has lived in Geneva intermittently since 1992.  Rachael first wrote about coronavirus in Switzerland in January 2021 (See article).

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