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COVID-19 Swiss government shuts down public life amid spreading coronavirus 

Swiss soldiers

Swiss Border Guard officers check everyone entering Switzerland at the Swiss-French border. 

(Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi)

The Swiss government on Monday declared an “extraordinary situation” over the coronavirus, instituting a ban on all private and public events and closing places such as restaurants and bars in a bid to harmonise the situation across the country.

“We need a strong reaction across the country and we need it now…it is the only way to surmount this crisis,” Simonetta Sommaruga, who holds the rotating Swiss presidency for 2020, told a news conference on Friday.

Switzerland is particularly affected by the coronavirus epidemic. More than 2,600 people have been infected in the country and almost 20 people have died.

The government banned all private and public events starting at midnight on March 17. It also ordered the closure of bars, restaurants, sports facilities and cultural spaces.  Only businesses providing essential goods to the population – such as grocery stores, bakeries, pharmacies, banks and post offices – are to remain open.

“We know that this decision disrupts the daily life of our country,” said Interior Minister Alain Berset, warning that the situation would get worse before it gets better.

The new measures are in place until April 19. 

Telework, schools and border closures

Hospitals and clinics must stay open but only for necessary procedures. Up to 8,000 members of the military will be mobilised to help contain the rapidly spreading coronavirus. This represents the largest army mobilisation since the Second World War in the 1940s.

The authorities advised that individuals at higher risk of complications from the virus – “vulnerable populations” –  must work from home or be put on paid leave when that is not possible.

On the education front, schools will be closed nationwide until April 19. Childcare centres may only be closed by the cantons if other suitable childcare facilities are available.

Meanwhile, the Swiss Federal Railways are suspending international services and reducing their domestic services. Connections between larger towns will be available every hour rather than every 30 minutes.  

The Swiss government has also decided to introduce border checks with Germany, France and Austria. Only Swiss citizens, holders of residence and work permits as well as people transiting Switzerland are allowed to enter the Alpine nation. 

Following cantons’ lead

The Swiss government had faced growing pressure to declare a state of emergency at the national level. By Monday, several cantons had already scaled up their response to the coronavirus. Geneva, home to many international organisations and multinational corporations, banned gatherings of more than five people

Europe is the latest frontline in the global effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Several countries – including Italy, Spain and France – have already imposed stringent lockdowns in a bid to halt the disease. In that context, some criticised the government for being slow to react.

“Faced with the sluggish reaction of certain political authorities and the complacency of the media, anger is brewing within the Swiss community of doctors, caregivers, scientists and other specialists who are called upon to help our population face the Covid-19 cataclysm,” Didier Trono, professor at the virology and genetics laboratory at the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), told Swiss public television, RTS.

Bertrand Kiefer, director of the Swiss Medical Review, took to Twitter to denounce the fact that the Swiss government has given up on testing all suspected cases. “Now we don’t know the reality of the epidemic,” he said.

The government appears to have taken such criticism to heart. It also said on Monday it was changing its approach to testing now that Switzerland has the resources to test more people. People showing a few symptoms are now eligible for testing, not just those displaying severe symptoms that require hospitalisation. 

swissinfo.ch/ds

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