ALPSIDE DOWNED: Mistakes

BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews / 21 Oct) – If there is something that Switzerland can tell Filipinos at this point of the pandemic, it is not to open up the economy and public life so quickly.

Owing to its proximity with Italy, this land-locked country was among the top 20 hardest-hit countries with COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic early in the year.

Back then I could remember the fear and shock of residents who locked themselves in their homes and bought face masks and antiseptic gels to ward off the virus. A Filipino friend and I rushed to the local Asian store to buy 20-kilo bags of rice because we anticipated a food shortage. I stocked up on food essentials and water to last for a week at the least.

There were urgent calls to shut down the border with Italy, but the government prevailed because closing the border could shut down the health system in its Italian-speaking part which was staffed mostly by Italians.

But Switzerland was able to quell the surge in cases and turn things around after a three-month strict lockdown, thanks to what a Swiss official said was the three-pronged weapon of “economic resources, good medical care and strong science.”

The government eased up in the summer, allowing the gatherings of more than 300 people last June. The lifting of restrictions came as a respite to the people eager to enjoy the short warm summer, and wanting to go back to their comfortable routine. COVID-19 only seemed like a bad start to the year.

Then the virus struck back, with infections rising in a second wave in the recent weeks, and a record-high 8,737 new cases and 9 deaths in just one day reported on October 19.

The recent spike in cases has forced the Swiss government to enforce another round of renewed restrictions. As of Monday, wearing of facemasks is already mandatory in all public indoor spaces, while spontaneous public gatherings (such as in parks) will be limited to 15 people.

Now, my neighbors and I wear facemasks when using the elevators and stairways and even when using the common clothes washing machines and dryers. And the Filipinos go to mass wearing facemasks while trying to keep seating distance between pews.

The working sector is also encouraged to return to teleworking or working from home, while restaurants and bars should only serve seated diners while enforcing social distancing rules. Masks remain compulsory on public transport since July 6.

At the height of the first wave last spring, the Swiss government declared the crisis as an “extraordinary situation” under the country’s epidemics act. This time, it has stopped short of announcing another lockdown, which in three months had resulted to many jobs lost in the restaurant and bar industry, and big losses especially in the hospitality, tourism and transport sectors.

On hindsight, it was probably a mistake for the Swiss government to allow public events to resume too quickly, a Bern-based epidemiologist said on the internet news page Swissinfo.

He said the cantons (the Swiss political units or provinces) had probably been too careless with public events last summer, especially on gatherings of more than 300 people.

The epidemiologist also believed the authorities had not kept the population “more aware of the pandemic” during the summer, because there was probably too much emphasis “on personal responsibility.” I have always wondered about that, that the Swiss trusted the vaunted civil duty and responsibility among their citizens even in the face of a pandemic.

The recent rise in cases is being blamed on the people returning from at-risk countries, and also to the more frequent contacts in the summer among family members, at the workplace, and at private parties.

There is travel – albeit still not normal – between Switzerland and the European Union, the EFTA (European Free Trade Agreement) countries and the UK. But the citizens and residents of non-Schengen countries, including the US, can enter Switzerland only in exceptional cases, thus limiting very much tourism. The large crowds and long lines of tourists in the shops and Swiss resorts are still not there.

The lesson might be there for Philippine officials who have announced a slow opening of a few tourist resorts to locals and the eventual return of flights to the country. The Philippines has also lifted its ban on non-essential outbound travel starting on October21.

A lesson that the Swiss may learn from the Philippines: the mandatory wearing of face masks in public. The Swiss do not have a mask-wearing culture, and wearing masks in public was traditionally seen as a sign of sickness as in those cancer patients, asthmatics and others with breathing problems. Swiss officials and even the public were initially skeptical on the benefits of mask wearing, but the progressive use of masks may have signalled a change and acceptance among the Swiss.

Also, winter is coming in two months, and people want to feel safer and more protected as the public transports like trains, buses and trams become congested in the cold months. “We should be able to keep the shops open safely throughout the winter with masks,” also opined the Bern-based epidemiologist.

The lesson is there for our two countries. Switzerland may have made it out faster of the lockdown with science and seriousness, but it may have fallen victim to complacence after the initial success. On the other hand, the Philippines still remains under the longest lockdown, a victim of its government’s slow response to the threat.

(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.)

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