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COMMENTARY: How Switzerland ended up with the second-highest coronavirus infection rate in the world

Click to play video 'Coronavirus around the world: March 22, 2020' Coronavirus around the world: March 22, 2020
WATCH (March 22, 2020): Coronavirus around the world

Global attention is mainly focused for the moment on the grave coronavirus crisis in Italy and the accelerating crisis that is developing in New York City and across the United States. But this is a truly global pandemic with some astonishing twists that never could have been predicted.

One of the biggest surprises is the severe situation that Switzerland finds itself in. The majestic mountain redoubt that is so organized that you can set your watch by the trains because they are rarely even a few seconds late has the second-highest rate of COVID-19 infection in the world. The rate of infection is going up so quickly — 758 new cases on Saturday — that the government says it has been having trouble keeping track of the growing numbers.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Canadian government’s efforts to fly Canadians home continue

Italy still tops the new coronavirus table with 886 people infected for every million citizens. Unbeknownst to most of the world, Switzerland is second with 793 cases of the virus per million people and closing on Italy’s lead. Lucky Canada has 35 infections per million people, though that may only because we are latecomers to the pandemic.

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Switzerland’s Federal Council declared “an extraordinary situation” for the first time ever, giving itself special powers that are usually held by the country’s 26 cantons. For example, all gatherings of more than five people have been outlawed.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Lockdowns implemented across the world; Italy reports nearly 800 deaths

Watching the snow melt in splendid sunny isolation on her balcony in Davos, Liz Soguel was obsessing Saturday over whether she and her Swiss-Canadian husband, Jeff, should return immediately to their home in Cobourg, Ont., or wait things out in a country they both love, admire and have been working and studying in for the past two years.

“We are a little nervous,” Soguel said. “Our public life has shut down here but maybe a bit too late. A lot of people here still led normal lives until this week. So many tourists were in town to go skiing. Everyone was moving around on crowded buses instead of staying home and socially distancing themselves. All the hotels were still full of tourists, though the ski hills had closed down.”

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Coronavirus outbreak: France, Spain on lockdown over COVID-19 spread

It is a different Davos today. Streets in the chic German-speaking resort town are mostly deserted. Only one or two hotels are open.

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Like in most of Canada, everything else except food stores, pharmacies, banks and post offices are shuttered.

Those who are out and about are either cross-country skiing, jogging or cycling. But with more than 200 infections detected in the small canton already, those who get some exercise are practising at least two metres of separation.

READ MORE: Arrival of first coronavirus cases in Haiti sends people scrambling for supplies

It is not that hard to see how Switzerland ended up with the second-highest coronavirus infection rate in the world.

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The country is a tourism and trucking crossroads in one of the business hearts of Europe. As well as the two cantons of Svizzera Italiana, which border Lombardy, the centre of the Italian pandemic, there are 68,000 Italian citizens who until a few days ago crossed the frontier into Switzerland from Lombardy every morning to work, returning home at nightfall.

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What virtually no checks were carried out previously, all Switzerland’s land borders with Italy, Germany, Austria and France have now been sealed except to Swiss citizens and 16,000 people have been turned back when trying to enter.

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“I think Switzerland struggled with the idea of closing borders before doing so about one week ago,” Soguel said. “That may be because the Swiss like to remain neutral and open. That is also how the country is perceived. The first case was on Feb. 25, and it has been on a rocket since then.”

One of the pluses of being famously well organized is that Switzerland was able to quickly mobilize its army to join the fight. Another has been that the Swiss franc backed government has deep pockets. Few countries of its size could quickly announce a 45 billion franc fund (C$65 billion) to support the economy, which is nearly triple what Canada has announced so far though Switzerland has 29 million fewer people.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus: How COVID-19 is spreading across Canada

The Davos hospital is already on a war footing with some staff working 100 hour weeks.

A triage centre has been set up outside the small facility. All non-critical surgeries have been cancelled. Most patients were discharged two weeks ago to make way for those infected with COVID-19. Visits to the remaining patients were also banned at that time.

“It felt like it was the calm before the storm,” said the 35-year-old Soguel, who works for a medical research foundation, of a visit that she had to make to the hospital a few days ago.

“Everything was so clean and so quiet. It was eerie to be there.”

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What has impressed her is how in the face of the new coronavirus menace, there has been no panic-buying and no hoarding of goods such as toilet paper. As a consequence, there are no signs limiting people to buying only one of two of any product although the government has placed limits on the purchase of painkillers and anti-fever drugs.

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“The Swiss are an orderly people. I have no doubt. They’ll follow whatever instructions they are given. They are already much more progressive than Canada in developing a work-from-home culture. As the culture already exists it will be easier to shift more people to working that way.”

READ MORE: Grocery chains install checkout shields, raise wages in response to coronavirus pandemic

On the other hand, most Swiss live in apartments. So there is not the kind of personal space that many Canadians are used to. Parks in cities such as Zurich have become so crowded in the past few days that people there have been ordered to stay away from them. These are among the reasons why the government has said that if the lockdown does not work, and the infection rate keeps climbing, in only 10 days Swiss hospitals will not be able to cope.

The Soguels wondered Saturday whether Switzerland will become the next Italy. By the sounds of it, the country is at that point already, or soon may be.

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Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas.

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