The virus that paralysed Switzerland

We were all looking forward to spring. Then COVID-19 arrived. Switzerland’s cities turned into ghost towns. Schools were closed. The streets fell quiet. Parks were declared off limits. This is the story of the first month of the outbreak.

Hygiene rules and how to behave – pictographs from the current Federal Office of Public Health prevention campaign.

COVID-19 has taken hold in Switzerland. Sars-CoV-2 – the virus that causes it – is indiscriminate. Anyone can catch it. Suddenly, the people who make decisions on behalf of Switzerland’s population of 8.5 million no longer have any reliable answers. From politicians to business leaders. The seven-member Federal Council is governing the country in crisis mode after having declared an ‘extraordinary situation’ allowing it to introduce measures that were last seen in the Second World War. It gives the government far-reaching powers.

When it comes to distilling and explaining these momentous decisions to the Swiss public, one man has been a constant presence for weeks: Daniel Koch, a Bernese doctor and head of the Communicable Diseases Division of the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH). Apart from the virus, Koch and his team of staff have initially had two other adversaries to contend with. Firstly, some Swiss were slow to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Secondly, certain border cantons broke ranks to take much more drastic measures than those sanctioned by the Federal Council.

Familiar faces from the sporting, cultural, showbiz, political and economic spheres have taken a back step. In their place, ‘Mr Coronavirus’ Daniel Koch has been cutting to the chase on our television screens in his calm, considered manner – his sudden celebrity another indication of how our world has turned upside down since the beginning of the outbreak.

Coronavirus timeline

January 2020: Skiers Beat Feuz and Daniel Yule send the nation into raptures with their respective victories in the legendary Wengen downhill and the slalom at Adelboden. The flagship event for the Swiss film industry, the Solothurn Film Festival, takes place. US president Trump talks up the successes of the US economy so much at the WEF in Davos that some delegates leave the auditorium. There are reports of a viral outbreak in faraway China. Memes about Corona beer follow on social media.

24 February: COVID-19 is becoming a real worry in Italy. Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset consequently puts Switzerland in a ‘state of readiness’.

25 February: The virus has reached Switzerland. A 70-year-old man tests positive in the canton of Ticino. This marks the beginning of a raft of official directives and measures to combat the virus. The number of coronavirus cases and deaths begins to rise inexorably. This has all the hallmarks of an epidemic.

26 February: Ticino takes matters into its own hands and bans all public events – carnival parades included. The canton’s two premier ice hockey teams have to play their next two home fixtures behind closed doors.

27 February: Social distancing sets in. The Federal Office of Public Health launches the Protect yourself and others campaign, providing the public with continually updated information. Here are some of its recommendations: Wash your hands thoroughly. Sneeze into the crook of your arm. Stay at home if you display flu-like symptoms. Keep your distance. Always call ahead before going to the doctor’s or the emergency department. Eventually, the overriding instruction will be ‘Stay at home’.

On the same day, organisers of the Engadine Ski Marathon cancel this year’s event scheduled to take place on 8 March. Almost 15,000 athletes were due to take part. The Swiss sporting world starts to shut down.

28 February: At its first major Friday press conference on the matter, the Federal Council categorises the situation in Switzerland as ‘special’ in terms of the Epidemics Act (EpidA). Events with more than 1,000 people are now banned. The EpidA allows the Federal Council to draw up emergency plans. The Confederation also unveils a bailout scheme for businesses, whereby companies can request compensation for reducing their employees’ working hours.

Switzerland’s professional football and ice hockey leagues are put on hold. Some of the most sacred events in the Swiss cultural calendar are either postponed or cancelled altogether. These include the annual carnival festivities in Basel, Berne, Lucerne and other cities, the Geneva International Motor Show, the Baselworld watch and jewellery show, and countless other events.

5 March: The first fatality. A 74-year-old woman in Lausanne dies of the COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Beginning of March: Not everyone has got the message. Young people in numerous towns and cities continue to party, flouting government guidance. However, many other people have started doing their bit to help others – particularly for the elderly who are especially at risk. Kindnesses include grocery shopping, having a friendly chat, and picking up medicine.

11 March: With the virus spreading rapidly in northern Italy, Switzerland introduces border controls in Ticino. Around 70,000 cross-border workers are allowed to continue commuting into Ticino from Italy.

12 March: Ticino is the first canton to declare an ‘extraordinary situation’, shutting all its schools and both of its universities in the process. The federal government offers an emergency package worth ten billion Swiss francs to soften the blow for Swiss companies.

16 March: The Federal Council declares an ‘extraordinary situation’. All shops, restaurants, bars and entertainment and leisure facilities will remain closed throughout Switzerland until at least 19 April. This also applies to schools. Only health and other essential facilities such as food stores and pharmacies will remain open. The Federal Council also authorises the deployment of up to 8,000 members of the armed forces to assist with healthcare, logistics and security.

19 March: Uri oversteps the mark, imposing a curfew on the over-65s. The Alpine canton is forced to reverse this measure two days later following an intervention by the federal government.

20 March: The Federal Council makes use of its emergency powers and bans gatherings of more than five people. It urges the population to stay at home, stating that people should only go out if they need to buy food or if they have a doctor’s appointment. The advice applies especially to those over 65 years of age, who are particularly at risk. This ban on gatherings relies on individual responsibility and is in contrast to the tougher confinement measures seen in countries like Italy, France, Spain and Argentina.

The measure is intended, firstly, to prevent Swiss hospitals from being overwhelmed, and, secondly, to stop cantons introducing their own measures unilaterally. In addition, the Federal Council increases its emergency funding for the Swiss economy to 42 billion francs. SMEs with liquidity shortfalls can apply their banks for unbureaucratic access to a zero-interest bridging loan of up to 500,000 francs.

A number of cities shut their public parks. Police patrols ensure that the rules on gatherings and social distancing are being applied.

21 March: The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) launches a repatriation action for 630 Swiss nationals stranded in Latin America. A chartered plane flies the first batch of tourists back to Switzerland three days later.

Meanwhile, Ticino goes it alone after its cantonal government decides to shut building sites and non-essential manufacturing activities. This measure amounts to a de facto shutting of the Swiss border to the many Italian cross-border commuters who work in the canton.

22 March: The director of the Federal Office of Justice (FOJ) and supreme federal authority on all legislative matters, Martin Dumermuth, calls Ticino to order, saying that all cantons must adhere to the federal government’s emergency measures. Exceptions are not possible. By breaking ranks, Ticino has set a dangerous precedent and must be overruled, he adds.

25 March: The FOPH announces that the number of recorded coronavirus cases in Switzerland stands at 10,000, with 150 deaths.

One month later

Switzerland’s national standstill continues. Life has changed for us all. People are in isolation. Around 80 per cent of those who work are doing so from home. All schools are shut. Parents (and children) are acquainting themselves with the joys of homeschooling. Switzerland’s flagship tourist industry is currently in hibernation. People in the restaurant and catering sector risk losing their jobs. Medical, nursing and care professionals, on the other hand, are working around the clock to their absolute limit. Farm crops are beginning to sprout, but the closure of international borders means no foreign fruit-and-vegetable pickers.

End of March: the federal government has received around 600,000 applications from over 40,000 businesses seeking compensation after reducing their employees’ working hours. Any trains or buses still running are practically empty. Public transport schedules have been completely scaled back. Reports are emerging of people who have died alone because their families were unable to visit.

* is a member of the swissinfo editorial team. swissinfo is providing in-depth coverage of the coronavirus epidemic in Switzerland. 

Visit www.swissinfo.ch/eng/in-depth/coronavirus.

Comments (13)
  • Livio Tagliavini, Arth, Schweiz
    Livio Tagliavini, Arth, Schweiz at 27.05.2020
    Wenn man es genau nimmt, dann gibt es keine Corona-Krise! Stattdessen gibt es eine reale, exorbitant grosse Wirtschaftskrise! Fast ausschliesslich durch verheerende Fehlentscheide unserer Politiker/-innen verursacht. Es gibt die Pandemie. Die ist vergleichbar mit einer mehr oder minder harmlosen bzw. gefährlichen Grippe.
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    • Maurice Ekpenyong, Manchester, United Kingdom
      Maurice Ekpenyong, Manchester, United Kingdom at 28.05.2020
      Directed to the individual who made the comparison statement.

      Your statement is totally inaccurate about it being comparable to more or less harmless or dangerous flu.

      I live in the UK and we have had well over 37,000 deaths already due to covid-19, the US just over a 100,000 deaths. I find your statement offensive, in your comparison to as you say harmless or dangerous flu.

      It's obvious to me that you do not have any medical or scientific know how at all.. I suggest individuals like you should speak about matters you really do not understand.

      Doctors, nurses and many other medical cleanicians have paid a high price in order to halt and aid those with covid-19.

      So now you tell me again! How it just harmless flu?
      How can someone be so foolish?

      A big hand and a big thank you, to all around the world, who are in the fight against covid-19.
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    • Claude Richli, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA
      Claude Richli, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA at 28.05.2020
      Effectivement, je trouve cela insupportable de comparer le COVID à une grippe plus ou moins dangereuse. Allez raconter cela à quelqu'un qui a perdu un être cher, peut-être même dans la force de l'âge, victime du COVID et vous vous ferez jetez dehors. Allez raconter cela à nos personnels médicaux qui ont lutté jusqu'à sacrifier leur propre vie pour sauver la vie des autres. C'est d'un cynisme effarant, ou au mieux d'une ignorance épaisse (probablement exacerbée par les milieux complotistes, souvent motivés par un agenda politique) que de prétendre une chose pareille.
      Vous ne pouvez qu'espérer ne pas devoir être obligé de faire appel à leurs soins, pire encore, de ne pas devoir vous faire brancher à un ventilateur.
      Show Translation
  • Magda Gonzalez, La Mesa, Colombie
    Magda Gonzalez, La Mesa, Colombie at 28.05.2020
    Afortunadamente la gran mayoria de suizos son gente disciplinada y que piensa en los demas. En America latina el egoismo y la indisciplina nos tiene al borde del colapso.
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  • Christiane Johnson, Redding, California, USA
    Christiane Johnson, Redding, California, USA at 28.05.2020
    I am in the US where the politicians played god and made stupid and disastrous decisions. We have now over 100,000 deaths. The Canton Tessin made the correct decision to close the borders. But we have this person: le juriste en chef de la Confédération rappelle les Tessinois à l’ordre. Tous les cantons doivent s’en tenir strictement aux mesures d’urgence de la Confédération. Aucune exception n’est possible, déclare le directeur de l’Office fédéral de la justice Martin Dumermuth. En rompant les rangs, le Tessin donne un signal dangereux. How many deaths before you DO NOT follow the mighty Francs and think only what goes in your pocket? I pray that you do not have to die alone, knowing that the Federal government cannot think of the people first and foremost.
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  • Virgili Fonti. l'Escala (Girona), Espagne
    Virgili Fonti. l'Escala (Girona), Espagne at 28.05.2020
    En Espagne nous etions très touchés par le cov19, et pendant presque 2 mois interdit se deplacer plus loin d'un 1km de chez-nous. Heuresement maintenant depuis une semaine, nous pouvons nous deplacer dans la provence (equivalant d'un canton suisse), mais les plages et la mer sont vides puisque c'est interdit de se baigner ou prendre le soleil...dans un pays où l'economie a une base très forte sur le tourisme de plage...c'est catastrofique. En plus le gouvernement espagnol change d'avis toutes les semaines, et commercants ou restaurateurs n'arrivent plus à suivre leurs nouvelles normes ilogiques
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  • Ralf U. Krebs, Colombie
    Ralf U. Krebs, Colombie at 30.05.2020
    Ici au coeur des Andes, nous vivons un confinement strict et passablement bien respecté grâce à un plan d'action parfaitement orchestré para le cabinet gouvernemental du président Iván Duque. Pour la Colombie, après plus de soixante jours de ce régime d'éloignement social et de préservation stricte des aînés et des plus jeunes, le pays est parmi les moins touchés d'Amérique latine au niveau de la maladie, mais toutefois durement secoué économiquement, avec un taux de chômage qui frise maintenant les 20% auxquels s'ajoutent un grand nombre de travailleurs informels dont le chiffre exhaustif est inexistant. Comme pour la plupart des pays du monde, il y aura encore des séquelles durant de longs mois et en tous cas jusqu'à la fin de l'année courante où la fête de Noël resemblera comme deux gouttes d'eau à celle de Pâques...
    Le télé-travail (pour ceux qui peuvent) reste pour l'instant la recommandation mise en place et pour les voyages, ils se limitent à l'ascenseur...
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  • Livio Tagliavini, Schweiz/Arth
    Livio Tagliavini, Schweiz/Arth at 31.05.2020
    Gemäss BSF (Bundesamt für Statistik Schweiz) sind in den ersten 18 Monaten des Jahres 2020 genau 25,400 Leute verstorben, in den Jahren davor waren es 24,925 - 25,386 - 25,229 - 23,103 - 26,596 also mit Recht kann man nicht von Corona-Krise sprechen! Es sterben vorwiegend ältere Leute mit Vorerkrankungen und die Todesursache wird Corona angegeben obwohl diese Leute sowieso am Lebensende angekommen waren.
    Show Translation
    • Marc Lettau, Chefredaktor "Schweizer Revue"
      Marc Lettau, Chefredaktor "Schweizer Revue" at 02.06.2020
      Für den April 2020, den Spitzenmonat der Corona-Krise in der Schweiz, ist eine signifikante Übersterblichkeit nachgewiesen, dies insbesondere für die besonders stark betroffenen Kantone Tessin, Waadt und Genf. Mehr dazu:

      https://www.srf.ch/news/international/uebersterblichkeit-als-hinweis-auf-den-spuren-der-korrekten-corona-todeszahlen
      Show Translation
    • Betty Geiser, Bay of Plenty, Neuseeland
      Betty Geiser, Bay of Plenty, Neuseeland at 26.06.2020
      Wer uns allen erklärt, dass 'nur' soviele an Covid starben und es nicht viel mehr als in anderen Jahren sind, tut mir sehr leid. Dank Interventionen von Staaten wie der Schweiz oder Neuseeland, wo ich lebe, haben wir eine grosse Corona-Krise abgewendet. Dank den Intervention der Staaten wurden viel weniger Todesfälle als in anderen Ländern gemeldet. Und hier in Neuseeland stellten wir eine viel, viel geringere Influenza/Grippe-Welle als in den Vergleichsmonaten der Vorjahre fest, nur weil die Leute vorsichtiger sind und Hände regelmässig gewaschen werden. Ich bin sehr froh, hier in Neuseeland zu leben, wenn auch sehr traurig über die weltweit unerfreulichen Kommentare von sogenannten 'Besserwissern'.
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  • Bernhard Bollag, Israel, Jerusalem
    Bernhard Bollag, Israel, Jerusalem at 04.06.2020
    Generell gibt es im Menschlichen keine 100%-ige Vollkommenheit. Jeder hat Vor- und Nachteile. Zwar bin ich nicht beim Weltgeschehen ganz vorne auf dem Laufenden. Jedoch wohne ich in einer Gegend, da waren viele Familien vom Virus betroffen, einige schwebten in Lebensgefahr oder litten über längere Zeit sehr. Es ist nicht ausgeschlossen, dass auch ich und meine Familie den Virus leicht erwischt haben.
    Alles in allem waren es schwere Zeiten und auch sehr viel Ungewissheit und Zweifel nagten erbarmungslos an der Menschheit herum.
    Ich zolle enormen Respekt den Gesundheitswesen verschiedener Länder, sowie der politischen Führung der Schweiz, welche die riesige, erdrückende Verantwortung in dieser ungewissen Zeit trugen und sicher enorm viele Menschenleben retteten.
    Wenn sich auch im Nachhinein gewisse Entscheide oder Befürchtungen als unrichtig herauskristallisieren, nimmt das überhaupt nicht an der Grösse aller Menschen, die an der obersten Front der Schweiz in dieser Zeit gestanden sind und aktiv waren.
    Ich kann nur erahnen, wieviel Mut, Durchhaltevermögen, Standhaftigkeit, emotionelle Kraft, usw. nötig waren diese schwere Zeit durchzustehen.
    Meinerseits habe ich nur ein Wort für diese Leute, tausendmal wiederholt, fettgedruckt und unterstrichen: DANKE!
    Ich bin überzeugt, dass sie irgendwann Früchte für diese grosse Aufgabe ernten werden.
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  • Rudi Amrein, Donegal, Ireland.
    Rudi Amrein, Donegal, Ireland. at 06.06.2020
    The swiss were lucky that there next door neighbour (Italy) informed them that they were having problems, so they could act quickly to prevent more loss of life.
    The western countries are lucky to have the money to fight the virus, South America and Africa are not so lucky.
    we need to streach out our arm's and help less fortinuate country's and in return we make friendships that aid trade and tourism and help us in the longterm.
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  • Ernst Ruetimann, Trang, Thailand
    Ernst Ruetimann, Trang, Thailand at 10.06.2020
    So verschieden die Leute mit ihrer Ansicht der Corona-Pandemie sind, so verschieden verlaufen die Krankheiten in den verschiedenen Länder . Hier im Lande des Lächelns haben wir seit dem Ausbruch nur 58 Tote zu beklagen. Obwohl Hunderttausende Chinesen Thailand besuchten und die erste Ansteckung ausserhalb Chinas gemeldet wurde. Nun lässt sich streiten, woran das liegt mit den niedrigen Zahlen der Erkrankten und Verstorbenen. Beim Betreten grosser Warenhäuser und Ladenketten gilt die allgemeine Tragpflicht von Gesichtsmasken und das Desinfizieren der Hände. Neulich muss man sich sogar schriftlich oder per App an- und abmelden!
    Show Translation

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