Switzerland: Living with coronavirus
Wealth and health go together in Geneva, says Cian O’Brien

By Cian O’Brien, The World Today, Chatham House, 17 July 2020


Author: Cian O’Brien works as a Livelihoods and Economic Inclusion Officer for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Geneva


It is said that the coronavirus puts everyone in the same boat. In Geneva, nothing could be further from the truth. While the fortunate enjoy teleworking or taking up new skills, the Swiss city’s many informal workers struggle to cover basic needs and have almost three times higher infection rates.

Geneva is one of the most expensive places in the world, and home to a global elite of bankers, diplomats, and summer residences of the rich and famous. Despite having one the highest COVID-19 caseloads per capita in Europe, lockdown measures have been relatively light. When researchers named Switzerland the ‘Safest country in the world for Covid-19’, they should have added: for the healthy and wealthy.

As a young professional in Geneva, I have come to understand that many residents feel protected from global events. Perhaps this is linked to wealth, historical independence, or the idyllic alpine nature with villages of wooden chalets and the distant sound of cowbells. If anything, the residents of Geneva are used to setting the agenda, not abiding by it.

Perhaps for this reason, my friends and I took little notice as coronavirus entered Switzerland. In mid-March, Geneva introduced a light six-week lockdown. Offices and restaurants closed, but parks remained open, small public gatherings were allowed, and facemasks remained a rare sight. Considering the draconian measures taken in neighbouring France and Italy, the experience was almost enjoyable – for those of us who could continue working from the comfort of our homes.

With few distractions and transport time, my partner and I suddenly found ourselves with an abundance of time to cook and eat healthier, exercise, finish outstanding projects, revise French and music, or go hiking and play badminton with friends. Our biggest challenge was the search for toilet paper – the soft one – and soap.

Not everyone is faring that well. While we were conjugating French verbs, thousands lost their jobs. Particularly, the large immigrant community of informal workers struggles to make ends meet, even as lockdown measures have eased. With unemployment and poverty surging, these communities often do not have access to public health or unemployment benefits. Around 1,500 people turned up for a food handout by a local supermarket, over half of them undocumented immigrants.

Worryingly, 3 per cent of these had tested positive for coronavirus – three times the Geneva average and a rate attributed to poor and overcrowded housing. Where I live, some made ends meet by selling drugs and became increasingly desperate as their usual customers at the music venue l’Usine disappeared.

According to a friend of mine who works as a psychiatrist, the impact of lockdown have only exacerbated the conditions of people suffering from mental health illness. With limited savings or access to social protection, this would disproportionally affect the poor or irregular immigrants. As a doctor, he had seen first-hand a significant spike in patients needing treatment, working until late every day. And still, he feared that many would not seek medical help out for fear of infection or simply because they could not afford treatment.

As life returns to normal and the number of cases fall, I feel lucky to have been among the privileged. Meanwhile, fellow residents struggled to meet even their basic needs, and have drained any few savings they might have had, despite residing in one of the wealthiest cities on earth.