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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Feargrieve

Federalism and the Tragedy of Covid Apartheid in Switzerland

Expat MATTHEW FEARGRIEVE explains why half of the population of Switzerland is suffering badly from the Second Wave, whilst the other half has enjoyed life as normal; why the Swiss Federal Government is at the root of this Covid apartheid in the alpine country; and why a Referendum will ensure that this situation persists.

Matthew Feargrieve cross on mountain in morgins switzerland

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed social and political fractures across Europe centred on the rights of citizens during state-imposed social restrictions and lockdowns.

But in Switzerland, which is currently in the grip of the Second Wave of Covid-19, the government’s response to the pandemic has exposed deep cultural fault lines that exist within Swiss society, and is now being challenged by a referendum. This, in a country where the rights of the individual are treated as sacrosanct and governmental powers are held in check by law.

According to the country’s Federal Office of Public Health, Switzerland recorded 3,001 new Covid-19 infections on 12 January, a rate of 477 per 100,000 citizens. Numbers have been slowly but steadily falling since the New Year, and are sharply down from a peak of 10,558 daily new cases recorded on November 2 last year. The country had a population of some 8.6 million in 2020, according to United Nations data.

Covid Apartheid

The trajectory of the Second Wave in this small alpine country is really a story of two countries: the regions (known as cantons) where Swiss-German is spoken, and the francophone areas known collectively as Suisse Romande.

There are significant cultural, as well as linguistic, differences between these two regions. A stereotype that is deeply entrenched in Switzerland is that of the Swiss-German lands being prosperous, clean and efficient, with the Suisse Romande on the other hand being poorer, shabbier and less productive. Economic data for the cantons of Switzerland are supportive of this profound cultural division.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the epidemiological situation in Switzerland has followed this geographical and cultural division. Life in the principal cities of the Swiss-German speaking areas (Bern, Basel, Zurich, Luzern) has largely continued as normal since the Second Wave first hit the country in November, with restaurants fully open and bars serving alcohol until 11pm.

Life in the principal cities of Suisse Romande (Geneva, Lausanne, Montreux) has been starkly different. Hospitals have been bursting with Covid patients, and civic life has been subject to stringent lockdown. Covid cases have been four times higher in this region than in the German-speaking cantons. The region’s main city, Geneva, established itself as Europe’s biggest Covid hotspot in November.

And so it is that a state of Covid apartheid has been established in Switzerland. This “apartness” that separates the poorer francophone cantons from their German-speaking neighbours is encapsulated in people’s consciousness by a culinary metaphor that speaks of the röstigraben (essentially signifying the regions where the German dish of rösti is eaten) and the coronagraben (meaning the rest of the country, where Covid is rife).

Federalism: the enemy of Covid control

In our earlier blog here, we discussed how the röstigraben and the coronagraben were the product of the Swiss political system of federal government. We explained how the country’s federalism is a key component of this cultural and epidemiological division, and how a devolution of administrative powers to the cantons has placed these small civic decision-makers under a large amount of pressure to formulate and implement Covid policy (both in terms of a public health and economic crisis response) without much guidance from the federal government in Bern.

This ability of the twenty-six different cantons in Switzerland, spread across the Suisse Romande and German-speaking regions, has led to Covid apartheid in the country, wherein a French-speaking official in Suisse Romande can force local businesses to close, whilst her German-speaking counterpart can sit a mile away in a restaurant and have fondue for lunch.

The autonomy of the cantons, and the way they represent the local interests of the different peoples of Switzerland, is highly prized. But medical opinion is clearly of the view that a disjointed, disparate approach to Covid control is no way to fight the pandemic. There has, says the scientific community, to be a centralized, uniform approach to lockdown.

No political party or senior politician (committee men, all of them) in Switzerland has publicly called for the introduction of a centrally-led lockdown. It took a petition in early November by fifty Swiss economists to focus some pressure on the lockdown issue.

The Economists step in

The petition reasons that, whilst a lockdown causes economic loss, the bigger picture is that “the economic costs of a pandemic staying out of control are borne later, as the economy stalls, and spreads to other sectors”. The economists opined that what Switzerland needs is “a swift second lockdown”.

That was in November. The petition's conclusion is an exhortation of the Swiss federal government to put local fiscal interests to one side and impose a blanket, country-wide lockdown:

There seems to be a pervasive misunderstanding regarding the economics of COVID-19: an argument is often made as to the economic costs of a lockdown, invoking a tradeoff between the economy and health. In our opinion, and especially in the kind of situation Switzerland is in now epidemiologically, this is a false dichotomy: there is no such trade-off. The choice is between 1) a big recession, overwhelmed hospitals, and many excess deaths under current policies; and 2) a big recession with fewer deaths and a manageable health system under a second lockdown.”

It is not as if the Swiss government lacks the legal power to impose such a blanket lockdown across the cantons.

The Covid-19 Act: life saver, or danger to democracy?

The Covid-19 Act, approved by lawmakers in September, provides the government with a legal framework enabling the imposition of restrictions to control the Second Wave. Prior to this new Act, the government had power to restrict public life only through unilateral emergency decrees under Switzerland’s Epidemics Act. Those powers were strictly time-limited and subject to onerous parliamentary oversight; constraints that do not apply to the new Covid-19 Act.

In true laissez-faire style, however, the federal government has not much used these powers. Until late December, Bern’s governing Federal Council had been reluctant to impose any restrictions. Despite the Second Wave being well underway, opposition from many Swiss aimed at social curbs, and dire warnings from several of the country’s most powerful and influential lobbying groups about the economic consequences of another shutdown (see our blog “Business is always Business in Switzerlandhere) combined to deter government lockdowns in the run-up to Christmas, even as Covid numbers rose.

The inability of the decision-making in Bern to impose top-down control over the cantons led to a diplomatic stand-off in early December, when the government refused to force Switzerland's ski resorts to close, an act of defiance that angered the country's covid-respecting alpine neighbours.

By mid-December, however, the reported numbers of Covid infections and related deaths, and the rapidly-filling hospitals, particularly in the Suisse Romande regions, finally spurred Bern into action. On 18 December, the government ordered a country-wide shutdown of restaurants, bars and leisure facilities that will remain in force until the end of February. On 13 January, this shutdown was extended to cover shops selling non-essential goods.

So, you may be thinking: the government has taken the right decision, federalism will not be allowed to impede the control of coronavirus in Switzerland and the state of Covid apartheid in the country will be brought to an end. Yes?

Referendum on Covid restrictions

Well, not quite. Amazingly, the Swiss think that the government’s actions go too far. That the new Covid-19 Act is a dangerous precedent because of the extent to which it confers emergency powers on the government. And that the autonomy of the cantons and, indeed, democracy itself in Switzerland, is under attack.

And so it is that a campaign group called “Friends of the Constitution” submitted a petition in Bern on 13 January, containing no less than 86,000 signatures collected over the past three months (being well in excess of the 50,000 minimum) formally to initiate a referendum vote to repeal the Covid-19 Act.

A spokesman for the group said: “We are a movement that says crisis management cannot be done without the will of the sovereign: the people. You cannot govern without the people. In our opinion, the [government] is taking advantage of the pandemic to introduce more control and less democracy".

The petition is legally binding on the federal government, and the people’s vote is scheduled for June, at which point Switzerland would be the first and perhaps the only country ever to have given its citizens a direct vote on coronavirus restrictions.

Critics of the campaign to repeal the Covid-19 Act say that, by the time the referendum is held, not only will the pandemic likely be in remission, but many of the legal provisions granted under the Act will automatically have lapsed in accordance with limitations hardwired (in true Swiss style) into the legislation. The retort of the referendum's supporters is that the point of the vote is to prevent a precedent being set in future national emergencies.

All the same, the campaign and its outcome, the referendum, are surely a side-show to the burning issue, which is that Switzerland desperately needs a centralized, uniform approach to Covid control and social restrictions, one that is imposed top-down by the government in Bern across all of the country’s administrative regions.

It is ironic that, just as federalism and the autonomy of the cantons were beginning to be put aside in mid-December, in the face of appalling, spiralling rates of Covid infections and deaths across the country, the divisive sacred cow of Swiss local government has been preserved. For now, Covid apartheid in Switzerland continues.

MATTHEW FEARGRIEVE lives in Switzerland. You can see more of his blogs about Switzerland here, here and here. You can read his business blog here and see his Twitter feed here.


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