BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews / 30 April) – Walking home last night, my wife and I experienced one of the strangest sights ever, in these days of fear and despair over the COVID-19 lockdown.
It was nearly 10 o`clock in the evening and it was raining. And then appeared before us the sight of a man clad in full fishing gear – I noticed that he had on rubber boots and was using a long fishing pole – beside one of the small water canals in our Bümpliz Nord area. My wife asked, “Was that guy there fishing?” I had to look back again to be sure, and if I had time I would have snapped a quick photo to convince even myself. But this was no mirage—there was a guy out there fishing in the rain from an open canal in the inner city!
Cut to today. Going to the lift in our 18-floor apartment, I was preceded by a woman who was wearing a face mask. When the lift opened, I offered the lift to her because she had come first. But she also offered me an open palm and so I got in first. There was enough space for us because two people were allowed in the lift. But when I turned around I was alone in the lift, and I realized that the woman had wanted a lift all to herself.
Welcome to The Days of The Weird, more than a month after the Swiss government had locked down the country on March 16 to stop the infections from COVID. Until that date, Switzerland was in the top 10 COVID-affected countries.
Since that date, the country had entered an emergency period which the government had compared to the Second World War in history. An initial 8,000 soldiers were called up in the biggest post-WW2 mobilization of the Swiss army to man the borders and assist health teams struggling to contain cross-border infections from Italy, France and Germany. Later the army would be also ordered to help procure much-needed medical equipment and bring them to hospitals or to the shops which needed them.
Border crossings were already restricted on March 13, and last week, Swiss customs officers reported that they had turned away some 56,000 non-Swiss citizens at the borders. An average of 150 fines per day had been issued to those violating the new border rules, including those caught doing cross-border shopping, damaging barriers at the borders, or crossing at unauthorised points.
We were ordered to stay home and work from home, and to keep trips short and only to buy essential groceries or to exercise. Physical distancing was strictly enforced and face-to-face meetings in public were limited to only five people at any time.
In addition, public transportation on trains, trams and buses were cut down to a minimum. Restaurants were closed down or limited to take-out orders, while bars were closed. The intention, said the federal parliament, was to slow down public life so that people could not meet and hopefully new infections would also be prevented.
The strict measures are working, giving parliament enough confidence to announce two days ago a cautious lifting of the measures.
This week barber and beauty shops and cosmetic studios were allowed to reopen, along with doctor and dental clinics, massage parlors, garden centres and florists.
I had expected people to flock to the barber shops and the beauty parlors, but it was interesting to note that do-it-yourself gardens shops were also deluged by the Swiss buying plants and packed soil and eager to start their summer gardens.
Another striking cultural difference: people are still not wearing masks in public, despite suggestions to wear protective masks inside shops or while riding public transportation. The Swiss, like other Western countries, do not have a mask-wearing culture and tend to think that only sick people wear masks. A Filipino friend learned this in an embarrassing way, when he wore a mask one day and encountered two kids who stopped to stare at him and then ran away, pointing their fingers at him while crying out, “Mami, Corona!”
So what is the comparative lesson here in the fight against Covid? I would hate to compare Switzerland’s experience in trying to contain Covid among its population of only 8.5 million spread over 41,285 square kilometers; with that of the Philippines’ 106 million people living in 300,000 square kilometers of land.
The differences in location and the state of the public health system are also wide. But certainly the difference is marked in the swiftness of response by government.
The Swiss parliament started social lockdown measures on March 16, after the first case was reported on February 25 – an elderly man who had been infected in Milan near Switzerland’s southern border.
The Philippine government meanwhile, started a selective lockdown only on March 15, or 45 days after the first reported case in the country on January 30.
As April 29, Switzerland has 29,407 COVID cases with 143 new cases reported, but its infection rate has slowed. The Philippines meanwhile, has 8,212 reported cases with 254 new cases, but even authorities say that the peak has not been reached yet.
[Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao City and also for SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps.]