Switzerland rings 16th-century warning bell as coronavirus spreads

Renato Hausler shouts out the hour from the top of Lausanne Cathedral then sounds a centuries-old warning bell, rung only when the normally-tranquil Swiss city is facing peril.

Switzerland rings 16th-century warning bell as coronavirus spreads
Nightwatchman of the Cathedral of Lausanne, Renato Haeusler manually rings the 3600kg "La Clemence" emergency bell in the Cathedral's belfry tower, amid the spread of COVID-19. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI

The nightwatchman is ringing La Clemence, a bell made in 1518, to call for mutual solidarity among the Lausannois in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic, Hausler told AFP.

Its 3.4 tonnes of steel make a hell of a din which cuts through the still night air, above the city and out over Lake Geneva.

Its C note rings in harmony with those of Marie-Madeleine, Lombard and the four other bells hanging in the tower.

Standing in his felt hat with a lantern to light the way, Hausler peals the bell with three strikes, a pause, six strikes, another pause, then repeats the pattern.

Every night without fail, Hausler or one of his stand-ins calls out the hour from 10:00pm to 2:00am, north, south east and west from the bell tower, up 153 stone steps from the cathedral floor.

Lausanne is one of the last places in Europe that still has a nightwatchman as a living timekeeper. Hausler has been doing the job full-time since 2002.

The first written references to a nightwatchman date back to 1405, after a huge blaze ripped through the city. “During the disaster, the bell rang to encourage the townsfolk, to rally people together to fight the fire,” said Hausler.

Linked with a network of watchmen on the ground, the cathedral watchman, perched on the highest point in Lausanne, sounded the alert around the city as quickly as possible. 

Night watchman of the Cathedral of Lausanne, Renato Haeusler shouts the hour prior to manually ringing the 3600 kg “La Clemence” emergency bell in the Cathedral's belfry tower, on late March 27, 2020 in Lausanne. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

More than 200 dead

Centuries on, perilous times are back on the shores of Lake Geneva and the bell rings out for a full three minutes.

More than 13,000 people in Switzerland have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 230 people have died in the new coronavirus pandemic, according to the health ministry.

The French-speaking Vaud region surrounding Lausanne has seen the highest numbers of cases of all of Switzerland's 26 cantons, with nearly 3,000 people infected.

The Alpine country has not confined its population indoors but outdoor gatherings of more than five people are banned. And in the evening, the streets of Lausanne, a student city that is usually very lively — especially on weekends — is strangely silent.

“Since these restrictive measures urging people to stay at home, it has completely changed,” said Hausler.

“It is quiet all week, even from 8:00pm, and when I get here, there is hardly any activity around the cathedral or even in the city so it brings a tranquility that I have never experienced before.

“There is a real calm which resembles what it would have been like in the past, before there was all this traffic noise.

“There is perhaps just one last thing that would bring us right back to how things were in the Middle Ages: turning out the lights.”

Besides Lausanne, only six other European cities are thought to keep up a nightly watch: Annaberg, Celle and Nordlingen in Germany; Ripon in Britain; Krakow in Poland, and Ystad in Sweden.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


What to do if you haven’t yet received your Swiss health insurance card

Switzerland is late in issuing health insurance cards for new policy holders or those who have switched their providers at the end of 2022. What should you do if you need medical help before your new card arrives?

What to do if you haven’t yet received your Swiss health insurance card

When you buy a health insurance policy in Switzerland from any of the dozens of approved providers, you will receive a credit card-sized card to be used as proof of insurance. Aside from your name, date of birth, and AHV / AVS number, the card also includes the name of your insurance company, client number, and the date of validity.

You will have to present this card each time you seek medical treatment that is included under the obligatory KVG / LaMal scheme.

Residents of Switzerland are allowed to change their compulsory health insurance coverage from one provider to another by November 30th, to go into effect from January of the following year.

The sharp increase in the cost of the health insurance in 2023 — 6.6 percent on average, but higher in some cantons — has prompted many people to look for cheaper options and change their carriers.

READ MORE: Millions of Swiss residents switch health insurance amid rising costs

This massive switch has caused a backlog in the production of new insurance cards, which means that many policy holders have not yet received theirs.

The cards for all insurance carriers are issued by a subsidiary of the Santésuisse health insurance association, whose spokesperson, Manuel Ackermann, said that the delay is caused by the “extraordinarily large number” — three times as many as in an average year — of switches.

He did not specify how much longer is needed to issue and send out all the cards.

What should you do if you haven’t yet received your card?

Say you need medical help, or another situation arises where proof of health insurance is needed — for instance, if you are applying for a new job or registering in a new municipality.

In such cases, you can present the insurance certificate letter your carrier has issued when you took up your policy.

While not having an insurance card is a minor inconvenience in Switzerland, where such a certificate can be used in the interim, it could be more of a problem when travelling in the European Union.

Under normal circumstances, if you fall ill in the EU, all you have do is present your Swiss card, which is equivalent to the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). This way, you can be treated and the bill will go directly to your Swiss insurance company.

However, absence of the card could mean that hospitals in those countries may not recognise the insurance certificate alone, and require Swiss residents to pay for medical care on the spot.

While not an ideal situation, you can submit the bill, along with all the required documents such as details of your treatment, to your insurer in Switzerland.

READ MORE: Reader question: Can my Swiss health insurance refuse to pay my medical bills?