Sally Yan, who has lived in Switzerland for 13 years, left her home in Zurich over the weekend to wait out the coronavirus pandemic in what she believes to be a safer location: Shanghai.
“In China, fighting the virus is under control, and getting business back to normal is the top priority,” said Yan, co-founder of a fintech company called Drivetide Capital, days before her departure. “In Switzerland, it is just one of the things to be solved.”
While the number of new cases reported in China has dropped off in recent days, infections in the rest of the world continue to surge. The World Health Organization has labeled Europe as the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy has suffered the biggest outbreak in the region—more than 24,000 cases as of Monday and at least 1,800 deaths.
“China’s response was very rapid, highly centralized, well-controlled, and well-coordinated,” says Rifat Atun, professor of global health systems at Harvard University. “It gave time for European countries to adequately prepare for a response. Unfortunately, countries did not use this time wisely to prepare, and I fear Europe has done too little too late.”
Europe’s new playbook
The Chinese government was widely criticized in the West for its heavy-handed response to the outbreak. Now some European countries are following Beijing’s example, using mass quarantines, transportation bans, and country-wide school closures.
“Many European countries have shifted their approach and now appear to be taking a page out of China’s playbook in their responses to coronavirus,” said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Spain announced a nationwide lockdown Saturday, and France closed all nonessential businesses, including cafes, restaurants, shops, and movie theaters. Germany restored border controls with neighboring countries. The United Kingdom has avoided broad, disruptive measures so far.
Switzerland, too, is stepping up efforts to confront the escalating health crisis. Until recently, the government relied on an information campaign about hygiene and social distancing along with a ban on big events. But on Friday, the Federal Council closed schools and universities, restricted gatherings to less than 100 people, and authorized border controls. While Switzerland isn’t a member of the European Union, it belongs to the region’s passport-free Schengen Area.
“The challenge in Europe is that the responses are highly fragmented,” Atun said. “Each country has its own separate and sometimes conflicting measures. There is no central coordination.”
China on the cards
With the epidemic in China apparently subsiding and with life returning to normal, Chinese expats and their families are looking to their home country as an escape from what they fear is just the start of the crisis in Europe. In Switzerland, more than 2,000 people have tested positive to coronavirus and 14 people have died. And those are just the severe cases as officials are no longer testing people with mild symptoms.
Yan is from Huangshi, a city just an hour’s drive away from Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated. Her mother is still in quarantine. The decision to pack her bags for Shanghai, her husband’s hometown, did not come lightly.
“It was very hard. I’ve been thinking about it for quite a few days, back and forth,” she said.
Martin Hedman, a 61-year-old resident of the canton Vaud and a Swedish citizen, just renewed his family visa to China, allowing him to stay there for three months at a time. He and his wife, who is from Suzhou, west of Shanghai, took their 9-year-old daughter out of school days before the nationwide shutdown announced Friday. Although he welcomes the new measures, a move to China remains “a serious option.”
“A month ago, we were sending breathing masks to our family in China,” Hedman said. “Now they are sending them back to us.”
Ling C., a Chinese national and communications freelancer, who asked that her full name not be used, has been checking flights to Shanghai nearly every day. Although she has lived in Zurich for six years, she says a count of 10,000 coronavirus cases in Switzerland could prompt her to go back for a few months.
The door may be closing fast. Starting Monday, anyone arriving from abroad to Beijing will be transferred to city quarantine facilities for 14 days.
Yan, who arrived in Shanghai on Saturday, isn’t abandoning Switzerland in its time of need. While in China, she will be helping her company use data analytics to source medical supplies such as masks, protective suits, and gloves for Europe.
“Just staying in Switzerland, I could not do much if people have to quarantine themselves at home due to the virus,” she said. “Here I can definitely add more value.”
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Why you can’t trust coronavirus counts
At least 613 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Switzerland, but that number isn’t a reliable measure of the outbreak. The Swiss government is abandoning efforts to keep a precise count of coronavirus cases to focus instead on easing the burden on the healthcare system and protecting the most vulnerable—the elderly and those with preexisting conditions. “The government has decided that they will only test people who are at risk, who have strong symptoms,” said Michael Hengartner, president of the ETH Board. “Young people, who might have weak symptoms, will simply be asked to stay at home to minimize contagion.” The Cantonal Hospital of Lucerne has received a recommendation from the government to limit testing to the most vulnerable or severe cases, said spokesman Markus von Rotz. “Only patients who are hospitalized and health care staff will be tested for coronavirus,” said Claude Kaufmann, a spokesman for Hirslanden Private Hospital Group, which operates 17 hospitals. “Patients with fever and cough must stay at home so that they do not infect anyone.” The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health confirmed that the cases could be far higher than reported and that “people at especially high risk are tested as a priority.“ No test, no infection This raises the question of whether the count reflects the true scale of the outbreak. Many people have been keeping tabs on the daily tally from the federal health office, relying on it to provide a measure of the severity of the situation in Switzerland. The country reported its third coronavirus death Tuesday as the outbreak worsens in neighboring Italy, which has logged over 9,000 infections and 460 deaths. It also marks a change in strategy from the early days of the outbreak, when the government ramped up testing following the first confirmed case on Feb. 25. Back then, even mild cases were being counted and traced in the effort to contain the crisis. The Swiss Federal Council said Friday that tracing the infection would continue “as long as possible.” At the same time, it indicated that protecting people by minimizing contact—at work or social events—was now the bigger priority. Large events have been banned across the country but, unlike in Italy, no blanket travel restrictions have been imposed. And the Swiss border remains open to commuters from Italy. “With the infection rate that this virus has, it will basically cross across the human population,” Hengartner said. “It will become a pandemic. And the challenge for governments is to keep the infection rate low enough that we can always manage the patients that need to get hospitalized.”
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