COVID frontline: Switzerland

Part of a series of stories being collected by Cosmos around how various parts of the world are coping with COVID.

By Matthias Hertl

Population: 8.57 million 

First Case: 25 February 2020

Cases 11,811 Deaths 191 (As of 26 March 22:36GMT)

Switzerland is not a place which moves quickly. Even in Zurich, the largest city by a distance, the 350,000 inhabitants take their time. Coffee by the lake is enjoyed in the sun and dinners are eaten over the course of hours. And all of these elements move together in perfect harmony like, well, a Swiss watch.

Normally this makes the country beautiful and calm, but these times are not normal, and have shown the downside of living in a place that always walks but never runs. 

It might surprise people to know that Switzerland has the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 infections in the world (outside of microstates and Iceland).

You might expect the country worst hit by this pandemic to take the most extreme measures – lockdowns, curfews, empty streets and an isolated populace. However, the response has been typically Swiss – everything happens by consensus, and consensus is not easy to gather.

It was only on March 16th, 3 weeks after the first case of COVID-19 and a week after Italy – our direct southern neighbour – had locked down the entire country that the Bundesrat [ed: Swiss Federal Council] moved to shut down public life: restaurants, bars, etc. Since then the rules have tightened, which for us means parks are off-limits, no gathering in groups of >5 people under penalty of a 100CHF fine, and closure of all borders to everyone who isn’t a citizen, resident, or cross-border worker. In an extraordinary measure for a country on which everything closes on Sundays, parcel and grocery deliveries are now allowed all weekend long.

This prompted a phenomenon you have probably experienced yourself. In German panic purchases are named Hamsterkäufe, which translates to “hamster purchases” – fitting in times where large swathes of the population displayed similar hoarding instincts as our furry friends. 

Despite the lockdown announcement on a Friday, the following weekend’s beautiful weather attracted people in droves to the rivers and lakefront – clearly the communication hadn’t gotten through.

Now, a week and a half later, the reality has sunken in. Employees stand outside of grocery stores like bouncers with hand sanitizers at the ready and shelves are consistently low on soap and disinfectants; although canned food, rice, and toilet paper have returned after the initial rush. The trams running across the city are nearly empty, even at rush hour, and the weather has also learned to cooperate as the previous weekend’s warmth has faded to a renewed spring chill to keep everyone indoors.

I have been working from home for the second week running now and have discovered a few creative outlets for my cabin fever – baking bread, rearranging my bedroom several times, and renewing my passion for long bike rides – an easy solo exercise while we are still allowed outdoors. Apart from these constructive outlets I’ve also rediscovered my passion for playing FIFA video games – although this has often created more frustration than it has relieved. 

Zurich itself is very quiet now, as is my flat as most of my housemates have chosen to ride out the crisis with parents or significant others. Runs to the grocery stores are a practice in patience as you wait for the person in front of you to pick their milk out before you can approach the section yourself.

Noticeably, the stores are almost never empty – someone is always shopping for something at all times of the day. Despite this, there are no major delays during the week, but what were once 10 minute shopping trips can be stretched on the weekends to more than half an hour if you end up in a long line as the store reaches its capacity. 

You may feel like you’re going a little stir-crazy when your only human contact comes at a 2-metre distance in front of the dairy aisle, but remember that everyone else is in the same boat as you are. We’ll ride out this storm together – as long as you keep an appropriate distance away from me in our cabin. 

Matthias Hertl is a healthcare consultant who lives in Zurich.

We’re interested in sharing your personal experiences with COVID-19 with our readers to unite us in these unprecedented times. You can contact us by email here: [email protected]

Related reading: How to read COVID-19 statistics correctly

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