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Coronavirus: what is ‘essential’ in Switzerland?

donne di fronte a un chiosco
An essential stop off? A kiosk at Bern station on March 23, 2020. Keystone / Anthony Anex

Switzerland has banned all non-essential activities to combat the spread of coronavirus. This provides an interesting opportunity for society to reflect on what is really important, says economist Sergio Rossi. 

Shops, markets, restaurants, bars, museums, libraries, cinemas, concert halls, theatres, sports centres, swimming pools, hairdressers, beauty salons and ski resorts: from March 17 to April 19, all such businesses and facilities are closed in Switzerland. According to the authorities, these “non-essential” activities must be suspended during the pandemic to protect public health. 

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Only businesses providing essential goods to the population – such as grocery stores, bakeries, pharmacies, banks and post offices – are to remain open.

If you put aside the economic consequences for employees and entrepreneurs, these measures are legitimate. How could a sports centre or theatre guarantee the health of visitors given the high risk of infection of the coronavirus?


What is surprising, at first glance, is the list of activities that are still permitted and, implicitly, considered essential for society. While grocery stores and chemists undoubtedly need to stay open, it is more surprising to see takeaways, garages and newspaper kiosks on the list. These can remain open if they respect the government’s rules about hygiene and social distancing.

Sergio Rossi, professor of economics at the University of Fribourg, External linkis also surprised by such differences. 

“The definition of what is essential is subjective and depends on how human needs are classified, whether essential or voluntary,” he told

“Education is essential, but schools have been closed,” notes Rossi. “The current political choices primarily take into account people’s physical health, turning a blind eye, for example, to kiosks and cigarettes.”

You could therefore argue that tobacco is an essential good, he added. 

From an economic point of view the only truly essential activities are those that satisfy primary, vital needs, he goes on. Hence, food production, from the farmer to the retail store, and healthcare.


Find a balance 

In general, the definition of essential activities depends on how developed a society is over time and space, says Rossi. 

“The current Swiss society is very different from that of a century ago. And it is not comparable with an African country, for example. With the advent of neoliberalism, the growth of the financial sector within the economy and globalization since the 1980s, essential needs have changed and are more numerous. Who could do without the internet?” he asks.

When we reflect on what is really essential, we must also take into account the structure of society, he added. “There are young and old people, men and women, wealthy people and low-income classes. Healthcare is more important for the elderly, while education is more useful for children and young people. In a complex and evolving society, we need to find the right balance.” 

When the Swiss government decided the coronavirus containment measures, these distinctions were not made, said Rossi. 

“But rightly so, since the virus can affect everyone,” he said. The important thing is that society in general and each individual know what is really important, once the crisis has passed. 

“This is the lesson we should draw from all this: to grasp what is really important and what is secondary in a person’s life and in society as a whole.” As social creatures, he explains, we need each other.

“This crisis also teaches us that the state is an essential socio-economic player. Society needs a strong state that is capable of responding to human needs at financial, health, cultural and relational levels,” says the Swiss economist.

What is still open? 

The Swiss government has decided that, in addition to healthcare facilities, the following may remain open: grocery stores, newspaper kiosks, take-away restaurants, company canteens, meal delivery services, chemists, petrol stations, railway stations, banks, post offices, hotels, garages and points of sale of telecommunication service operators. 

Private businesses can also continue their activities, but they must take measures to protect employees and customers (hygiene measures and social distancing).

Canton Ticino, in the south of Switzerland, which has been badly hit by the virus and recorded the most deaths to date, is more restrictive. It has ordered factories and production lines to temporarily close to combat the spread of coronavirus. The order has been branded excessive by a leading manufacturing association. Industry has been ordered to cease production unless it relates to critically important areas such as healthcare, food or agriculture.


Translated from Italian by Simon Bradley

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