May 19, 2020 / 8:25 PM / 13 days ago

Breakingviews - Cox: Quarantine in Switzerland is surprise luxury

ZURICH (Reuters Breakingviews) - The queue stretched from behind the former convent for European aristocratic women an entire city block to the affluent shopping street of Bahnhofstrasse. Lines like this are common in the coronavirus era. Consumers across the world have had to wait to enter stores and limit purchases of staples like toilet paper or pasta. Saturday’s human traffic jam in downtown Zurich was different.

Shoppers queue in front of a store of the Italian luxury fashion brand Gucci off Bahnhofstrasse as Switzerland eases lockdown measures during the coronavirus outbreak, in Zurich, Switzerland on May 16, 2020. REUTERS/Rob Cox

The horde on the pavement, none in face masks, was clamouring to get inside Gucci’s boutique. There’s nothing essential about a $870 pair of Screener GG Mignon trainers. Nor was this the only throng: the sidewalks were also packed in front of Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s and other high-end shops. It was as if the Great Lockdown had come, and simply vanished.

Hard to say whether Switzerland’s experience, or that of neighbouring Germany and Austria, is a harbinger of what to expect from reopening countries like Italy, France, Great Britain and the United States. It will be a few weeks before data is available to determine whether a swift return to something approaching normality results in a resurgence of Covid-19 cases.

“Right now, it’s like we are in that moment after you have taken an exam and you are just waiting to see the results,” says Sergio Ermotti, the chief executive of UBS, Switzerland’s largest bank.

But there will be lessons to glean from Switzerland’s handling of the virus and subsequent quarantine, which has been surprisingly luxurious compared to the experiences of many other developed nations. The takeaway may be as simple as this: societies that prize self-responsibility, respect for rules and institutions – and plan for rainy days – are better places to shelter from the storm.

“One of the most underestimated factors is to what extent people have faith in their governments, and do they listen to them,” says James Breiding, author of “Swiss Made: The Untold Story Behind Switzerland’s Success”. Lack of trust has impeded efforts by the United Kingdom and United States to deal with Covid-19. In Switzerland, “the ballast is informed and engaged citizens who argue to the point of anarchy; and expect representatives to work for them with veto right if they screw up, (through) referendum.”  

Switzerland, where direct democracy is practiced and cantons have wide-ranging powers, has been far from perfect in dealing with the pandemic. As the virus spread across the Italian border in late February, federal officials in Bern were slow to respond. There have been over 1,880 deaths from Covid-19, a rate of 218 per million population. That ranks it about the tenth worst among major nations. Yet it’s half the rate of France and Italy, across whose frontiers many healthcare workers cross to staff Swiss hospitals.

Once the seven-member Federal Council, presided by Simonetta Sommaruga, gave the order in mid-March to stay home, the strengths of the Swiss system became apparent. Non-essential shops were closed. Pasta and toilet paper shelves were briefly empty in some busier supermarkets but there was none of the panic buying seen in America and Britain. That’s partly thanks to the National Economic Supply Act, designed to guarantee a supply for up to six months of essential goods like sugar, cereals and medicines, and services in times of serious shortages.

If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then Switzerland may be the country version of the Boy Scouts. That’s evident in the private sector, too, notes Ermotti. Some 70% of UBS clients who took advantage of a 40 billion Swiss franc pool of government-backed loans had no previous credit line or debt. Moreover, only 40% of firms participating in the programme have drawn down their credit lines. “It really confirmed the resilience of small and medium enterprises going into the crisis,” Ermotti says.

Equally impressive was compliance with orders from federal and cantonal authorities, including bans on gatherings of more than five people at a time. “There is a social contract here and a lot of self-responsibility,” Tyler Brûlé, who chose Zurich as the Swiss headquarters of the global Monocle media and advertising business he founded in 2007, said in the Exchange podcast last week. “Social capital is very high here, it’s their way or the highway.”

Indeed, Switzerland’s lockdown severity was relatively consistent. According to the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker’s stringency index, Switzerland on March 17 rose to 79.49 out of 100, and didn’t deviate until April 27 when it relaxed some restrictions. By contrast, the United Kingdom lurched from 24 to 84 and now hovers around 70. Switzerland’s current 63 reading is below that of the United States, Italy and Denmark. 

This partly validates the cliché of the prying Swiss neighbour. Before moving to Zurich in late January, multiple people who had lived in the country counselled me not to mix recycling with rubbish and warned that toilets cannot be flushed at certain hours of the day. During peak lockdown, Reuters reported on a surge in noise complaints and private detective inquiries, including on neighbours talking too loudly on late-night conference calls or holding large playdates.     

This is a culture that conditions the Swiss to be on their best behaviour in ways that might feel constraining across the border in Italy. But it also means that government can play a less obvious role in enforcing orders. Though the police have broken up some anti-lockdown protests in Zurich, Bern and other cities, they’re not visibly monitoring social distancing.

Citizens appear to take responsibility for following guidelines, as community mobility reports compiled by Google suggest. During the week of May 7, visits to retail and recreation facilities in Zurich were down 54% from the baseline. By comparison, in my native Fairfield County, in Connecticut, the comparative decline was 34%. Where Zurichers excelled was in their visits to parks, up 90% from the baseline. That compared with 68% back home. This is perhaps unsurprising in a country where only around a fifth of adults are obese, compared with 36% of Americans. An ounce of prevention indeed.

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