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Chasing the numbers behind the virus in Switzerland

Pessoas em volta de um computador
Cifras em constante movimento: especialistas e autoridades do Departamento Federal de Saúde Pública em Berna Keystone / Anthony Anex

For those not on the frontline, the fight to rein in the spread of the coronavirus often boils down to watching an unfolding, sometimes confusing numbers game.

And as swissinfo wrote last week, when it comes to pinning down the extent of the propagation, different reporting and testing approaches around the world mean that a completely accurate picture is hard to come by – even when it comes to numbers of deaths.

Here is an overview of the situation, with data from various trusted regional, national, and international sources, current as of 26 March 2020.

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According to cantonal figures aggregatedExternal link by Bernese researcher Daniel Probst, the total number of positive cases on March 26 was over 11,000: canton Vaud had most, at over 2,000, while canton Appenzell Inner Rhodes (population 16,105) had the least, with fewer than 10.

Per 10,000 inhabitants, meanwhile, the southern canton of Ticino on the Italian border – which has been a forerunner in Switzerland’s coronavirus crisis – is still the most affected, ahead of Geneva and Vaud.

Note: the real-time figures presented by Probst’s corona-data.chExternal link open-source platform are slightly higher than those reported by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), which releases a daily update based on the data it receives from cantons.

+ More on the discrepancy between the figures here

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More than 160 people have so far died in Switzerland. When it comes to deaths per region, the south again bears the brunt. Ticino has recorded most deaths overall, as well as by far the most deaths per 10,000 people. Vaud and Geneva are next-most hit. Several cantons in central Switzerland have not recorded any fatalities at all.

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Older people, particularly men, are so far more likely to have tested positive in Switzerland; the elderly are also more likely to die as a result of Covid-19, with the average age of victims in the country so far being 85, according to the FOPH. Many of the victims had pre-existing medical conditions.

In Italy, by comparison, according to data releasedExternal link on March 20, the mean age of a sample of 3,200 people who had died as a result of the virus was 78.5; almost four-fifths of the victims were male.

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This said, a March 24 survey of 30,000 Swiss by the Sotomo group found that younger people were more likely to say that the government should introduce stricter measures, while older generations were generally satisfied with the precautions taken thus far.

In the same survey, meanwhile, French-speaking regions of the country were also marginally more likely to support tougher measures – perhaps reflecting the statistical fact that, so far, they have been more heavily affected by the virus than German-speaking regions in the north.

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In the graphic above, Switzerland is just behind Italy when it comes to the number of Covid-19 cases per million people. However, other sourcesExternal link, using the raw data supplied by cantons, reckon that Switzerland is in fact more heavily affected than any other country.

Such comparisons are difficult, as many have pointed out, since different countries have not only different attitudes towards reporting cases, but also towards testing. More tests means more reported cases, but this is not necessarily a picture of the overall situation.

Worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins UniversityExternal link, well over 400,000 cases of Covid-19 have been reported as of March 25. Almost 20,000 people have died. Around one-third of the global population is currently, in effect, living in conditions of lockdown.

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When it comes to deaths per one million people, Italy is by far the hardest-hit country. Opinions are divided as to why this is the case, with media reports raising various factors including the age of the population and the quality of the health service. Because of its status as the first European country to see a mass outbreak of the disease, Italy is also some one to two weeks ahead of many other nations.

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On March 24, speaking in Geneva, Health Minister Alain Berset claimed that Switzerland was now the global leader when it comes to the number of tests being carried out. This is reportedly due to many cantons boosting testing capabilities, including with so-called drive-thru systems, where patients can be tested while still sitting in their car.

However, due to cantonal differences and difficulties gathering hospital data, exact statistics are again hard to come by. Some sources reckon Switzerland has boosted its capabilitiesExternal link to just below the level of Norway. The graph above, using data gathered by Cambridge University, presents the picture as of March 20.

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Since passing the bar of 10 fatalities, deaths in Switzerland have been on a trajectory similar to Italy, doubling every three to four days. It remains to be seen if the slight easing of the curve in recent days will continue. Authorities are still hoping social distancing measures introduced on March 16 will have an effect.

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At a time when life in many countries has been turned upside-down, various other graphs and data could be found to illustrate the effects of the pandemic: stock-markets have plunged, internet usage has spiked, and as the above stats show, international travel has dwindled. Capacity at Zurich airport is just 10% of what it was two months ago.

Timeline in Switzerland

  • February 25: Switzerland reports its first coronavirus case – a 70-year-old man tests positive in canton Ticino, in the south of the country bordering Italy. Ticino bans all public events, including the carnival parades.
  • February 27: “Social distancing” is one of the precautions called for as part of an information campaign by the Federal Office of Public Health. The Engadin Ski Marathon – scheduled for March 8 – is cancelled. The Swiss sporting scene starts shutting down.
  • February 28: The government raises the alert level to “special situation” – banning events with more than 1,000 people, including football and ice hockey championships, carnivals in Basel and Lucerne, the Geneva Motor Show and Baselworld watch fair.
  • March 5: A 74-year-old woman dies in Lausanne. She is the first confirmed coronavirus death in Switzerland.
  • March 13: Ticino is the first canton to close all schools as part of its “emergency measures”. The federal government launches an emergency aid package worth CHF10 billion ($10.3 billion) and bans public gatherings of more than 100 people. 
  • March 16: The Swiss government declares an “extraordinary situation”, instituting a ban on all private and public events and closing restaurants, bars, leisure facilities and shops apart from grocery stores and pharmacies.
  • March 19: Canton Uri orders people 65 and older to stay inside their homes. The federal government tells the canton it can’t do that.
  • March 20: The government announces a nationwide ban on gatherings of more than five people in public spaces. It urges the public to stay home except to buy food or go to the doctor. Some city parks are shut and police begin enforcing the ban on groups of 5+.
  • March 21: The foreign ministry announces special charter flights for hundreds of Swiss citizens stranded in South America and Africa.
  • March 22: Canton Ticino orders manufacturing plants to shut down, though cantons have been warned not to unilaterally exceed the recommendations of the federal authorities.


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