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Remembering and forgetting.

Can Switzerland beat COVID-19, Jürg Utzinger?

Text: Jürg Utzinger

Assessing the country’s handling of the pandemic so far – from an epidemiologic and an economic perspective.

Prof. Dr. Jürg Utzinger.
Professor Jürg Utzinger. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

During the coronavirus crisis, Switzerland did a lot right – but not everything. When the first patient succumbed to SARS-CoV-2 just over a year ago, the virus was still largely unknown. Transmission dynamics and health implications had to be understood before measures could be devised to protect individuals and prevent the disease from spreading among the population.

After a few weeks, it was clear that face coverings were an effective way to slow the transmission of the virus. Why did Switzerland take so long to make a decision and only make face coverings mandatory on public transport at such a late stage? Then came calls to support digital tracking of trans[1]mission chains – but even the very best tracing app is of little use if people don’t install it on their smartphones and use it consistently.

And: Recommendations can only have the intended effect if they are accepted by and adhered to by the population. When and how they are announced by authorities and experts is just as important as the measures themselves. At times, however, it was difficult for people to keep track.

Another issue that merits examination is individual responsibility that the Swiss are so fond of invoking. It is hard to put much stock in recommendations if different rules apply in a neighboring canton. The credibility of a given measure can be seriously compromised if a few miles down the road it is applied in a different way or not at all. Over the past year, measures at the national and international level would have been both desirable and necessary.

Switzerland’s federal system of government often served as a scapegoat for ineffective measures, but it could actually be regarded as an advantage: Until we have a clearer idea of which combination of measures has the greatest impact, each of the 26 cantons could serve as a potential role model, with pitfalls and successes from which the others can learn. This would, however, depend on rapid and efficient exchange of data.

Jürg Utzinger is Director of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) and Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Basel. His research and teaching focuses on neglected tropical diseases and the health effects of large-scale projects in low- and middle-income countries.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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