Zurich’s response to COVID-19 has been national. For the first time since World War II, the
Federal Council (the executive branch of the federal government) has invoked emergency powers. A soft lockdown
based on trust in people’s behaviour and a broad economic support package have helped the healthcare system as
well as the employment market to avoid complete collapse.
Zurich’s COVID-19 response is first and foremost a national response. As a
consequence of the SARS and H1N1 outbreaks, the Swiss government revised
the Epidemics Act originally introduced in 1970. The new law, in force
since January 2016, allows the Federal Council to take control and
coordinate measures without parliamentary or cantonal approval in order to
manage infectious diseases. The work-sharing between the federal government
and the cantons is defined by a three-step approach based around what are
categorised as “normal”, “particular” and “extraordinary” situations. In
“normal” situations the cantons are in charge of prevention and
supervision. In “particular” situations the federal government makes
decisions in coordination with the cantons. And finally, in “extraordinary”
situations the federal government takes complete control and the cantons
and communities only follow orders. For a country like Switzerland, where
any federal authority is based on the cantons’ approval, an “extraordinary”
situation is truly extraordinary.
The federal government is willing to accommodate specific regional needs and interests in
On February 28th, three days after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in
Switzerland, the national government for the first time implemented the new
Epidemics Act and declared the circumstances to be “particular”. It banned
events involving more than 1,000 people and, shortly after, those with more
than 100 people. On March 16th the government changed its assessment of the
situation to “extraordinary”. This entailed the mobilisation of the
military and the alignment of containment measures across all cantons
(which meant that some cantons that had ordered the closure of hotels had
to reverse this measure as it was not part of the national package).
Interestingly, there was no opposition to this centralised approach, at
least at the beginning. Cantons and communities seemed to be pleased for
the federal government to take control. Nevertheless, the canton of Ticino,
one of the most affected regions, demanded and was granted an exception to
implement more restrictive measures. The incident demonstrated that the
federal government is willing to accommodate specific regional needs and
interests in its decision-making.
A “soft” lockdown with a (mostly) obedient civil society
Switzerland’s centrally administered lockdown is relatively soft compared
with the measures taken by its
bordering countries France and Italy. People are still allowed to leave
their homes and move around as long
as they are in groups of less than five. Most parks and playgrounds remain
open and people are
encouraged to go for walks. In Zurich, the lockdown involved the closures
of some parks in which people
tend to aggregate in larger numbers. To ensure the new rules are complied
with, the police have visibly
changed their priorities: while a lot more graffiti is appearing around the
city, the police are first and
foremost concerned with making sure that people in public spaces keep two
According to police reports, Zurich’s population has mostly followed the
new rules. Research by the ETH (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology)
and the canton of Zurich shows that people’s travel distances have
drastically reduced (Statistisches Amt des Kantons Zürich and ETH Bereich
Covid-19 TF, 2020). The government has attributed the relatively
disciplined behaviour of the population to the success of its national
information campaign. Surveys show that 98% of the population are aware of
the behavioural guidelines (Bundesamt für Gesundheit, 2020).
Civil society initiatives have been slow to emerge and have taken a secondary role in
Zürich and Switzerland.
Despite regional differences (the cantons closest to Italy were
hardest-hit), Switzerland has managed this first wave of the pandemic
relatively well: no hospital has reached capacity in terms of its intensive
care beds and the number of new cases confirmed by tests is decreasing.
A broad economic support package with some help from civil society
With the announcement of the lockdown, the federal government also
presented a support package for the economy of over CHF40 billion (€38
billion). The package has four main pillars:
To maintain business liquidity, banks are providing
government-backed credits of up to CHF500,000 at 0% interest, or
credits of between CHF500,000 and CHF20 million at 0.5% interest.
Businesses can apply via a short seven-step online form.
To prevent unemployment, employers can apply to the Kurzarbeit (or
job-saving) programme to subsidise their employees’ salaries while
activity is reduced or put on hold. This is a pre-existing
programme in Switzerland for preventing layoffs when businesses
face temporary and unavoidable hardship. For businesses affected by
COVID-19, the programme was extended to include temporary and
hourly workers as well as apprentices. At the time of writing,
one-third of the workforce in the canton of Zurich is benefitting
from this programme. Unemployment has nevertheless grown from 0.5%
to 2.8% between mid-March and mid-April. Without the Kurzarbeit
work programme, it is estimated that unemployment would be around
30% in the canton of Zurich.
Self-employed workers who have to close their business and artists
who can no longer perform receive 80% of their daily income up to a
maximum of CHF196 (€186) per day. This programme, which is
essentially like a guaranteed basic income for those directly or
indirectly affected by the lockdown, is also available to people
who have to take unpaid leave or cannot work because they have to
take care of their children or are under quarantine. Interestingly,
two weeks after the programme was introduced, demands for benefits
for childcare were still relatively low. According to the Federal
Association of Unionised Employees (Schweizerischer
Gewerkschaftsbund), this is partly because firms are providing
their employees with extra paid time-off and partly because the
programme is little known (Blumer, 2020).
Finally, the government is supporting cultural institutions (e.g.
museums, concert halls, etc.) with CHF280 million and is providing
CHF100 million in subsidies and credits for sport organisations.
In addition to the national government’s economic support package, the City
of Zurich has offered rent reductions to businesses leasing city-owned real
estate, and financial support to private daycare centres that have lost
clients (although daycare centres have been allowed to remain open, the
social pressure on parents with non-essential jobs to keep their toddlers
at home has been high). The municipal government has also created a website
that features different support services, from community-organised help
with home schooling to professional hotlines for people suffering from
anxiety or loneliness.
Maybe due to the government’s efficient and broad response, civil society
initiatives have been slow to emerge and have taken a secondary role in
Zürich and Switzerland more broadly. However, for those falling through the
cracks of the government’s economic measures, or those who need short-term
relief until they receive government support, they are important. A call by
Swiss Solidarity, a non-profit organisation, for financial support to help
those most in need raised CHF10 million in one day. Other civil society
efforts, organised by spontaneous neighbourhood initiatives or professional
organisations, include online platforms to connect local retailers with
their consumers, hackathons and “giving fences”, on which people can hang
healthcare products and other donations for those in need. One of the more
interesting private-sector initiatives this author came across was launched
by Migros – one of Switzerland’s two major supermarket chains – in
collaboration with Pro Senectute, the national organisation of retired
people. An employee at Migros’s IT services developed a peer-to-peer app
that matches high-risk individuals with “helpers” for grocery shopping.
With 20 orders per day and 81% of those made by people aged 66 or older, it
has fast become the most popular online shop for the elderly.
The path towards a new normality
On April 16th the federal government announced its partial plan for
returning to normality: from April 27th certain businesses (like
hairdressers and private medical clinics) can reopen, and from May 11th
kids of mandatory school age will go back to school and shops, bars,
restaurants, and museums can reopen. To resume business, the different
industry sectors had to present the protective, social distancing and
contract tracing measures they would put in place (e.g. to have a cup of
coffee in a coffeeshop customers need to provide their name and phone
number). This approach once again reflects how the Swiss government is
hesitant to govern from the top down and instead looks towards those
affected to contribute to a compromise that will hopefully keep both the
healthcare system and economy from collapsing. While the announcement of
the lockdown seemed to attract little opposition, calls for a more
democratic process to negotiate the reopening of the country are now
Blumer, C. “Es gibt Geld für Corona-Elternurlaub – warum holt es kaum
jemand ab?” Tages-Anzeiger, 14 April, 2020 (online). [Accessed on
Bundesamt für Gesundheit. Wirkungsanalyse der Präventionsarbeit des Bundesamts für Gesundheit BAG
in Bezug auf das neue Coronavirus, 30 March, 2020 (online). [Accessed on 18/04/2020].
Statistisches Amt des Kantons Zürich and ETH Bereich Covid-19 TF.
Mobilitäts-Monitoring Covid-19, 17 April, 2020 (online). [Accessed on