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Switzerland is trying to lose the new reputation it got under COVID: ‘Lazy’ vaccine laggard

October 5, 2021, 3:12 PM UTC

In Switzerland, one of the wealthiest nations on earth, health experts are worried about a different kind of medical emergency—an epidemic of the Impffaul. 

That is, too many Swiss are deemed “lazy” when it comes to inoculating themselves against COVID-19. Much like the United States, Switzerland places a strong emphasis on individual liberty, making vaccine mandates outside of at-risk professions all but impossible politically.

Not even the Pope could convince three members of his elite Swiss Guard, who preferred to resign from the prestigious security detail rather than get vaccinated, part of strict new Vatican rules that extend the protection of His Holiness to the virus itself.

With only 59% of the population fully vaccinated and 2 million adults still at risk, the Swiss government is launching a last ditch effort before chillier temperatures set in by rewarding advocates with 50 Swiss franc ($54) vouchers for each fellow citizen they persuade to get the jab. 

“With this grand campaign, we once again want to try and convince people of the value of a vaccination,” Interior Minister Alain Berset told reporters on Friday, faulting the country for having one of the lowest rates in all of Europe.

The goal of the “Better vaccinated” drive is to eliminate as many barriers as possible, by using tools such as mobile vaccination buses and free consultations. Estimated at 150 million Swiss francs (Sfr), the cost of the program could be recouped relatively quickly, he argued. After all, the cost of providing free tests, which will be phased out for most residents from Oct. 11, runs to about 50 million Sfr every week.

Citing much higher vaccination rates—north of 70%—in countries like Portugal, Denmark, and Ireland that allow for greater freedom for their residents, Berset said, “Every vaccination is one more step out of the crisis.” 

Plenty of holes in the Swiss vaccine plan

Switzerland’s unique politics make it complicated when taking concerted and forceful action against the spread of the virus.

The Alpine federation is steeped in the traditions of personal responsibility, with over two dozen loosely allied “cantons” that practice direct democracy via popular referendums. Four languages are officially recognized, and policies can vary heavily from one region to another.

That is why authorities were blunt about the need to vote in favor of a motion next month that legally enables the country—effectively surrounded on all sides by EU member states—to retain past March a COVID passport that is recognized by the European Union. 

Ministers in the nation’s highest political body, the Federal Council, conceded there’s no plan B readily available in the event the Swiss vote against an extension. Such an outcome would be devastating to its domestic economy, and in particular the tourism industry. 

“It would pull the rug out from under our feet in this crisis situation,” warned Christian Rathgeb, president of the Conference of Cantonal Governments. 

Despite being home to household names in the pharmaceutical industry like Roche and Novartis, the Swiss are prone to questioning authorities outside their own canton, and this skepticism is also seen in their relationship to vaccinations.

Internist Dr. Philipp Tarr, who heads a national program in Switzerland researching the issue, argued part of the problem is an inability of many classically trained physicians to connect with patients. 

“It’s not seldom that traditional medical doctors reach their limits when communicating with people that have a lot of questions and concerns related to vaccines,” Tarr told alternative medicine site Millefolia in January. 

“They find them difficult and cannot always advise properly, while the patients on the other hand do not feel like they’re being taken seriously,“ he said. “Some then switch to alternative medicine, where physicians do not find them tedious, but view consulting vaccine skeptics as part of their everyday job.”

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