Today (Saturday morning, 10.00, Zürich) is one of those impossibly crisp, clear, sunny autumn days. I woke up with a view of the Alps from my balcony, the forest a blaze of colours, the birds chirping and chattering. Everyone I passed on my way to my haircut was smiling; and not just with their eyes! Two weeks ago, Switzerland’s Federal Council advised that masks should be worn outdoors in areas of high traffic in order to control the country’s sky-high infection rates. Yes, in case you missed it, Switzerland now boasts one of the highest infection rates in Europe – this happens in small, densely packed countries it seems. It’s no surprise that the new rules were met with a generally grumpy response. While the Swissies have been obedient and good-humoured about following most guidelines issued by Bern and the cantons, the somewhat woolly instruction to wear a mask outdoors hasn’t quite worked – hence smiling locals rather than expressionless passers-by.
Part of the instructions suggests that you should put your mask on while waiting for public transport, but my quick survey of fellow commuters this morning revealed that only 20 per cent think this is a good idea. Everyone is happy to follow along on-board trains and trams but the moment they step off most masks come off immediately and are stuffed into pockets. Another recommendation has been to wear a mask in busy shopping districts but this has led to an even more confused picture, because who defines what busy looks like? At a time when many shopping streets are quiet and much of the workforce chooses to work from home, is it left to the shopkeeper to judge if the street is bustling? The consumer? Or the cop?
Last weekend there was a half-hearted attempt by the police to recommend that people wear masks in and around the Bahnhofstrasse (the city’s main shopping drag) but it had little effect. Which brings us back to those high numbers. The good news is that in certain catons they’re once again on the descent, albeit not exactly a steep one. Nevertheless, the government is striking an optimistic tone again and doesn’t seem too inclined to introduce more measures because it’s now clear things have been pushed as far as they can. (At press time, the federal government’s advisory panel is pushing for more closures but will face considerable opposition.)
Early on in the pandemic the Federal Councillor in charge of health, Alain Berset, said that you can only get people on board if the measures make sense. Back in March, when little was known about how things might unfold, it was easy to rally the nation and to get everyone on the same page. Eight months on it’s a different picture. Even though the army has been mobilised to shuttle patients around and some hospitals are stretched, certain media outlets (even responsible ones) and many lawmakers have suggested that it’s time to stop the scaremongering and move to a new strategy. When reports surface that there’s been no change in the number of employee sick days among some of the country’s biggest employers (the Post Office, Migros, Coop) versus other years, the pressure only grows for new guidelines to be implemented that allow for society to shift gears as the new year approaches.
As a super-fan of all things Christmas related, I’m thankful that the government isn’t using the holiday as a threat to make people behave as we’re seeing elsewhere. “Behave or there’s no seeing your family around the tree!” is the message we’re hearing in many corners of the world. Threatening people this time round simply won’t work. Indeed, it’s counterproductive. Clever leaders know that the symbolism around Christmas and the arrival of a new year demands a policy shift that lifts spirits and encourages people to look forward with confidence and a sense of optimism. The stop/start/semi-pause/rewind/stop approach to running nations, regions and cities isn’t working (when your country is completely closed down and numbers continue to rise, you need a new strategy, non? Oder?) and this means protection where necessary and a pragmatic approach to restore our sapped metabolism.