Is France paying the price for Swiss Covid’s “lax” measures?


In Switzerland, the canton of Geneva took the most stringent measures to fight the pandemic this fall: closing bars, restaurants, non-essential stores and leisure facilities. Keystone / Martial Trezzini

Strict containment in France versus more liberal measures in Switzerland: does this promote cross-border spread of the virus? This is a controversial issue at a time when Switzerland has far from the best Covid-19 situation in Europe.

This content was published on November 17, 2020 – 14:00

Mathieu van Berchem, Paris

In June, Switzerland seemed to have resisted the first wave of the pandemic thanks to a rather satisfactory political and economic response. At the time, the Hong Kong-based think tank Deep Knowledge Group even placed it at the top of its global security assessment ranking. In August, however, the Alpine nation was demoted to fourth place, behind Germany, New Zealand and South Korea.

Why not today? “We’re turning our analytics into dashboards,” says Luke Zanev, project manager of the Deep Knowledge Group. This is why the organization has not updated its Covid-19 ranking, based on more than 140 parameters. Zanev adds that this list is based on medium and long term projections and not on daily statistics.

Unperturbed by the current infection rates, Zanev said he was “certain that the Swiss authorities will take first-rate measures and that the country will remain in the top 20”. Figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) illustrate a harsher reality. Geneva tops its list of regions most affected by the virus in Europe. Three other French-speaking cantons – Friborg, Vaud and Neuchâtel – are among the 20 worst cases. As a result, neighboring countries are looking a little accusingly at Switzerland, where soaring infection numbers have not triggered a lockdown.

Hotspot border regions

Last Thursday, French Prime Minister Jean Castex ruled out any relaxation of the national lockout, which will last at least until December 1. However, contamination rates are lower in France than in Switzerland. The incidence rate over the last two weeks (number of new cases per 100,000 inhabitants on November 17) was 872 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in France, while it reached 1,023 in Switzerland. The positivity rate of the test is 19.5% in France, against 26% in Switzerland.

The Haute-Savoie region which borders Switzerland has the highest incidence rate in France (more than 700 positive cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 7 days). Is it a coincidence?

“The traffic between Geneva and neighboring France undoubtedly has a direct effect on the worsening of the epidemic in Haute-Savoie,” Pierre-Jean Ternamian, president of the regional union of health professionals, told Le Temps newspaper of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. “Cross-border workers are among the factors which have favored the spread of the virus”, adds the doctor, who deplores the “half-measures” and the “delay” of Switzerland in the fight against the pandemic.

Cross-border cooperation

“This is not the time to blame each other,” said Geneva State Councilor Mauro Poggia. Maintaining border crossings is in the interests of both countries. Poggia, who holds the health portfolio, has not forgotten how the closing of the borders in the first wave, with a few exceptions for cross-border commuters, weighed on the economy on both sides.

In Geneva, the incidence rate over the past 7 days is around 1,300 per 100,000 population, although last week the number of new infections declined. “Geneva imposes Switzerland’s toughest measures,” Poggia says, shutting down bars and restaurants as well as non-essential stores. In that sense, it’s not that different from politics in France.

Poggia says it would be difficult to be stricter at a time when neighboring Swiss cantons have no containment measures and some Genevans are going shopping in the canton of Vaud. “Cross-border cooperation is good,” added Poggia, who is in bimonthly contact with French prefects in the region. It should be noted that about 100,000 frontier workers work in Geneva and that half of the 12,000 employees of the University Hospitals of Geneva (HUG) are French nationals.

Too slow to react?

“Haute-Savoie has the dynamics of an economic metropolis,” said French parliamentarian Marion Lenne of President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche party. The region may be surrounded by high mountains, but it is strongly integrated into the economic and demographic fabric of a prosperous region. The French authorities have undoubtedly “ignored this evidence” by not applying the night curfew in Haute-Savoie imposed elsewhere in France in October, indicates Lenne. The politician also regrets that French parliamentarians do not participate in cross-border coordination because of the French centralization of decision-making.

“We have to expand that, create tailor-made arrangements in times of crisis,” she says. Above all, Lenne does not want the borders to be closed.


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