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‘High degree of aggressiveness’: How Covid has changed Switzerland

The nearly two-year-long pandemic has had an impact not only on health, but it also changed Swiss people’s attitudes toward their government and each other.

People take part in an unauthorised protest against coronavirus measures, Covid certificate and vaccination on September 23rd, 2021 in Bern. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
People take part in an unauthorised protest against coronavirus measures, Covid certificate and vaccination on September 23rd, 2021 in Bern. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

The way Switzerland’s population has reacted to various measures the government has put into place since the pandemic started in February 2020 has shifted as time went by.

When the pandemic first struck and the Federal Council responded by ordering a six-week-long confinement in March 2020, along with the shutdown of all non-essential businesses, the Swiss complied with the drastic measures dutifully and with hardly a squeak.

During this difficult time — even though their lives had been disrupted and uncertainty prevailed — people pulled together behind the government, showed community spirit and social responsibility, putting the common good above their own interests.

As Health Minister Alain Berset summed it up at the time, “Switzerland owes its stability to the constant search for a path acceptable to all. This approach proved its worth during the crisis.”

The general compliance with government measures in the early days of the pandemic was in large part due to the unprecedented nature of the new disease and uncertainty over its evolution. But it was also because the Swiss have a high level of trust in their political leaders, as numerous studies have shown.

However, as the pandemic progressed through several waves and new rules continued to be enforced, the compliance started to wane. Lassitude and frustration set in among some population groups, with divisiveness and opposition replacing the sense of solidarity.

What happened?

The catalyst for this major shift in attitude was the vaccination rollout and Covid certificate in 2021, both of which became highly controversal and  turned a health issue into a hot-button political matter.

Suddenly, the normally placid Swiss took to the streets to protest against the government’s anti-Covid measures, which they saw as a violation of their civil liberties and constitutional rights.

The movement gained momentum before the November 28th referendum relating to the Covid certificate.

READ MORE: What’s at stake in Switzerland’s Covid referendum on November 28th?

Though 62 percent of voters approved the legislation, opposition to it “reached an unusually high degree of aggressiveness, with death threats against various politicians, which is definitely unusual and linked to the strong polarisation of attitudes fostered by the pandemic”, Pascal Sciarini, professor of political science at University of Geneva told The Local.

Because of Switzerland’s unique system of direct democracy “Swiss people are used to have co-decision rights, and they do not like that the state puts constrains on them”, he said.

“I think this accounts for the fairly large opposition to vaccination and Covid certificate”.

However, Sciarini pointed out this phenomenon should be put into the right perspective.

“There are anti-Covid demonstrations in other countries, and some of them more ‘violent’ than in Switzerland. Therefore, one may assume that this opposition would be as visible as it is in Switzerland if direct democracy existed elsewhere”.

READ MORE:  How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

Member comments

  1. Divisivenesses opposition and frustration ate part of democracy .The root ot the problem has been the media and censorship

  2. An hysterical covid task force that has not been transparent with the scientific uncertainties about the effectiveness of interventions has not been helpful. And that journalists do not do their work and question their statements are making things worse.

  3. Direct democracy can be dangerous and result in tyranny of the majority. Still, the Swiss approach has largely been successful. Now that Covid had mutated into what is essentially a bad, very contagious cold, once it rips through the population we should soon see the end of it. Look at what the English have just done. They realize that they can’t stop it but it’s actually not that bad. Whether they say it or not, they’re aiming for herd immunity. That’s how this think is going to play itself regardless of vaccine passports, shutdowns and quarantines.

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.