Squeezed between the lake and the train station, the Pâquis quarter is best known for its colourful blend of cultures, trendy restaurants and shops, five-star hotels, relatively cheap accommodation and for being Geneva's unofficial red-light district.
The area usually comes to life as most people are going home after work. But on this spring evening, everything is closing down due to the coronavirus. Late-night drinks on packed café terraces, the hustle and bustle in the main red-light area, and a coffee and a chat between pensioners is a thing of the past.
On March 16, the Federal Council ramped up its response to the widening coronavirus pandemic, ordering the closure of all bars, restaurants, sports facilities and cultural spacesnationwide. Federal and local measures to curb the virus have reduced us to the bare essentials. Only businesses providing essential goods to the population – such as grocery stores, bakeries and pharmacies – are to remain open. Banks and post offices will also be open. The new measures are in place until April 19.
The heart and soul of the quarter has been stilled – temporarily.
The big surprise during this first week of partial lockdown has been to see how strictly locals have conformed to the authorities’ rules. Even the down-and-outs who spend their days in the Place de la Navigation square – the centre of Pâquis – respect the social distancing regulations that have been imposed. But admittedly the local police are keeping a watchful eye.
Time has been temporarily suspended, catching off guard the locals who are used to the usual hectic rhythm and lifestyle. Behind their four walls, each of the 10,000 Pâquis residents is quickly having to come to terms with the health emergency and perhaps reduced income, creating an uncertain future for the area which is home to numerous businesses.
Sex workers, who can work legally in Switzerland, had little time to react to the news. And the lockdown has the potential of being particularly brutal for them.
“Around 100 of them contacted us this week. We have tried to offer them support. Some don’t have enough money to buy food, some wanted to fly home but had their flights cancelled, while others simply might end up homeless,” explained the organisation Aspasie, which helps sex workers in the Pâquis district.
Some landlords have agreed to change some of the rental arrangements, especially for the much higher rents (up to CHF100 a day), but others have not, said Aspasie.
While waiting for the authorities’ measures of support to filter down, locals have been offering help via social media. And every evening at 9pm loud applause echoes from the balconies in support of Geneva’s health workers. Then silence returns. A dreamlike calm descends over the quarter amid the ongoing coronavirus battle.