Switzerland Praised for Early, Strong and Sustained Approach to Contain COVID-19
Shoppers mob malls in Geneva, Switzerland after restaurants and stores reopened on 6 June 2020 – following nearly two months of lockdown.

After a rocky second wave with COVID-19, Switzerland has turned a corner and is witnessing a decline in cases and deaths and the easing of restrictions, opening the country for tourism and large events. 

Switzerland has been praised for its response early in COVID-19 and for its economic policy throughout the pandemic. 

“Switzerland has navigated the pandemic well. COVID-19 has had major social and economic impacts, but an early, strong, and sustained health and economic policy response helped contain the contraction of activity,” said the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in a statement released last week. 

A total  of 702,746 COVID cases and 10,347 deaths have been recorded since the beginning of the pandemic, numbers proportionately comparable to neighbouring countries. 

During the first wave in late March 2020, Switzerland benefited from witnessing and learning from the catastrophic impact the pandemic had on northern Italy. Switzerland’s health system had three weeks to reorganize hospitals, expand the intensive care unit (ICU) capacity, and adopt procedures that made ICU admission criteria stricter, which eased pressure on the health system. 

“It’s really remarkable what they did, and because they were able to do that, we did not suffer a completely overwhelming situation of the type that was seen in north Italy in March 2020 in Switzerland,” said Samia Hurst-Majno, a member of the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force, at a virtual symposium organized by the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute on Tuesday. 

Second Wave Brought Rise in Cases, Deaths, and Mistrust of Health Authorities

Despite Switzerland’s success in curbing cases and deaths in the early days of the pandemic, the government took a different approach during the second wave in mid-October 2020. 

COVID-19 restrictions in Switzerland were more lenient during the second wave, compared to the first. Instead of quickly imposing far reaching restrictions, the focus was placed on reducing the burden on the health system. 

This was done by delaying thousands of non-urgent medical interventions and raising the threshold for admissions for non-COVID patients. 

Other countries in the region, by contrast, tended to impose more stringent policies, including school and workplace closures, stay-at-home requirements, restrictions on public gatherings, and travel bans. 

“Public health is a difficult task in a federal country,” said Hurst-Majno. 

Switzerland’s decentralized decision-making during the second wave led to wide variations in the measures implemented and inconsistent messages coming from cantonal governments. 

The second wave was also characterized by a rise in conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and a decline in trust in authorities. 

A study conducted between June and July 2020 in Fribourg, Geneva, and Vaud found that among the 1,518 respondents, 32.6% believed that the virus had escaped from a laboratory in China and over 40% considered lifestyle responsible for the emergence of the virus. 

Individuals who held conspiracy beliefs were less likely to follow public health recommendations, thus facilitating the spread of the virus. 

COVID Exacerbated Social Divides

The pandemic has also exacerbated existing socioeconomic divisions, exerting different stresses, threats, and possibilities for populations. Some have been able to work remotely, protected from the virus and from job loss, while others were at risk of losing their income and were further marginalized by COVID-19. 

Gender disparity was also seen, with men having a higher mortality rate and women suffering more from social and economic consequences. 

“It is not surprising that these divisions should arise in the face of a pandemic,” said Hurst-Majno.

Samia Hurst-Majno, Director of the Institute for Ethics, History, and Humanities at the University of Geneva and member of the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force.

“Seeing these distinctions is not really a Swiss specialty and this has had an unsurprising consequence…[that] data are lacking,” said Hurst-Majno.

A preprint study from May found that wealthier citizens were more likely to get tested, less likely to receive a positive test, be hospitalized, or die from SARS-CoV2. 

Recent Positive Trends in Cases and Behavior

Despite the rise in misinformation and vaccine hesitancy in Switzerland, Hurst-Majno highlighted the positive, compliant behavior of the majority of the population. 

“I have been consistently impressed by the response of the population,” she said. “Most people have handled themselves extraordinarily well.”

Most impressive was that over the Christmas holiday, the majority of individuals complied with the recommendations communicated by the Federal Office of Public Health and gathered in small numbers in cautious ways. 

This resulted in no uptick in cases. 

Cases have been on a continuous downward trajectory since mid-April, coinciding with the acceleration in the vaccination campaign. Some 32% of the population are fully vaccinated.

As of 26 June, individuals from a third country who are fully vaccinated can enter Switzerland for tourism, masks will no longer be required outside, and large events of up to 10,000 people can take place with a certificate showing vaccination, recovery from COVID, or a negative test. 

It remains to be seen how Switzerland will fare as restrictions and government stringency decline.

Image Credits: S. Lustig Vijay/HP-Watch, Swiss TPH.

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