A swashbuckling Swiss is hard to imagine. After all, the Swiss haven’t fought a war against a foreign country since 1515, except when Napoleon attacked—and then Switzerland was conquered (although Swiss forces did win one battle against Napoleon’s troops; there’s a large monument near Bern to prove it.) If the Swiss are known for anything, it’s their passion for security. No one buys more insurance than a Swiss does; no one takes better care of their car.
So, if they are so safety conscious, why aren’t they getting vaccinated against Covid-19?
It could be worse, of course. Sixty-six percent of the Swiss population is vaccinated at least once, while not even 50% of the people in Idaho and West Virginia have received a first dose. In Rumania, a member of the EU, that figure is only 37%.
Still, compared to the rest of Western Europe, Switzerland is a disaster. Consider the Portuguese, 88.8% of whom have had at least one dose, while in Italy and Norway it’s 77%. True, the state of Vermont still leads the pack, with 72% of Vermonters double-vaccinated. But Vermont has only 623,251 people; even little Portugal has ten million.
We’re in the middle of National Vaccination Week in Switzerland, November 8-12. The federal government has provided the cantons with money to organize vaccination tents and buses, accompanied by concerts, fairs, or at least free food, to charm the remaining one third of the Swiss population into finally getting their shots.
Sadly, no one really expects this effort to work; some of the more conservative cantons haven’t even bothered to take their share of the federal money. Vaccinations have been easily available to everyone over 18 for at least six months now, and the pressure on people to get inoculated has been high. Anyone who hasn’t yet been immunized probably isn’t just waiting for the chance to get a free donut with their jab.
Swiss anti-vaxxers are a mystery to the other two thirds of the population. Some are conspiracy theorists, who also believe that fifth-generation mobile technology is a secret system to control their brains. Others don’t like the government telling them what to do, especially (in the case of the political right) the federal government. But an astonishingly large number of the people who won’t get vaccinated against Covid-19 don’t seem to have any clear reason at all: they just don’t want this “untested” stuff in their bodies.
This strikes me as a particularly odd argument coming from the Swiss, since so many of them believe in homeopathic and herbal remedies for every kind of illness; swear by osteopathy, ayurvedic diets, and electromagnetic therapies; and expect their health insurance policies to pay for all kinds of alternative treatments. To me it appears that they love untested stuff. I imagine they’d counter that their kind of health care has been tested. Ayurveda, after all, has been practiced in India for thousands of years, whereas we’ve only been injecting people with Covid vaccinations since December 8, 2020 (not counting test subjects). I don’t think my pointing out that testing has a lot to do with examining effectiveness would go over well with this group.
This anti-science/anti-big pharma/anti-medical establishment crowd has joined forces with the pro-freedom people, and Bern and other cities have seen one demonstration after another of the unmasked. Ever since people started having to show proof of vaccination or a negative test at the doors of restaurants, concert halls, movie theaters, and dance clubs, many demonstrators have started carrying signs calling the Swiss government a dictatorship.
Switzerland, a dictatorship? A country in which it only takes 100,000 signatures in support of a proposal to bring it before the whole population in a federal vote? A country in which any law produced by parliament can be challenged by voters if 50,000 signatures are gathered against it within 100 days of its passing?
We already voted last June on a referendum opposing the federal government’s response to Covid, which included the closure of restaurants and the wearing of masks. That time, the government’s decisions were upheld. Now, at the end of November, we’re voting again for or against our nation’s updated Covid legislation, much of which involves financial help for people whose income was cut by the pandemic, as well as rules about contact tracing, testing, and proof-of-vaccination passes. So far it looks like the current federal policy on Covid will be approved. Thank goodness.
By now, I’ve given up trying to understand all the reasons why so many Swiss—including a few I know well and am fond of—refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19. The kindest explanation is to assume that they are beset by fears of immunization that are deeper than the fear of dying from Covid or killing someone by passing the disease on, perhaps to someone they love. As far as I’m concerned, being afraid of Covid’s effects on myself or, through me, on other people is a completely rational fear, to which getting vaccinated is the only rational response. Two-thirds of the Swiss population apparently think the way I do.
What the remaining third is afraid of, I can’t imagine. Surely not that their country has become dictatorship, since the freedom the Swiss anti-vaxxers have at present to overwhelm hospitals and threaten their fellow citizens’ lives is extraordinary.
Photos by Keystone
9 thoughts on “The Land of the Free”
I read a very interesting article in the New York Times that pointed out, among several other things that don’t necessarily apply to Switzerland, that 25% of people are needle-phobic and avoid other vaccines when they are not mandated, as well. It seems odd that it would influence people that much but, as we know, phobias don’t make a lot of sense. It explained to me just a little (although I still felt they should bite the bullet and just do it) how so many people who ended up in the hospital with COVID, when asked why they had not received the vaccine said, “I just didn’t get around to it yet.” Since I don’t have any phobias that I’m aware of (except perhaps being in a tornado, but that’s a pretty rational phobia!–especially since I have been in one), so it is really odd to me but I guess I would understand a little better if I had one.
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That’s fascinating, Natasha. I had no idea. I’m glad you told me, because it makes me more sympathetic. It also explains what one unvaccinated person said to me: Well, I might get one, but they expect me to get two! I thought she was afraid of a double dose of the vaccine substance, but it makes much more sense that she couldn’t cope with the needle twice.
Funny thing, the covid-vaccine hesitant have a very high proportion of PhD’s. And I know several medical people personally who have resisted being vaccinated.
And I read that there is an unusually large increase in vaccinated young athletes having heart attacks.
I only personally know one medical doctor who wouldn’t get vaccinated; she was retired, so not treating patients. She caught it and was very ill in the hospital for several weeks, but now she’s home and should be okay. However, I do know of lots of nurses, at-home-care people, and carers for the elderly in homes who are anti-vaxxers. I don’t understand that at all. Interesting and odd about the athletes; I’ll have to research that one.
Here’s a site that lists star athletes who had negative reactions to vaccines…
There were lots more amateur athletes who had problems.
Well said, Kim. The reluctance of such a large majority to get vaccinated is hard to understand and hard to forgive.
Thanks, Clare. We are all so frustrated by anti-vaxxers, but I heard something that cheered me up today. A neighbor who I knew wouldn’t get vaccinated told me that she’d quietly gone and gotten a Johnson and Johnson shot and was feeling good physically and relieved to have done it. I know these haven’t been available in Switzerland very long, but I have no idea what made it okay for her–perhaps she didn’t want an mRNA inoculation. In any case, that’s one more person protected from the virus who’s also protecting us. Shows there’s still hope of some people changing their minds so late in the day.
Thank you Kim for this interesting blog post. Writing from Spain where there was a long and strict lockdown which I think partially explains why there is such a high vaccination rate. People continue to wear masks outdoors, even if it is no longer required.
Large, inter-generational families are quite common here and I wonder if this also contributed to the vaccination success rate. People wanting to show solidarity for their elders and also wanting to protect those same elders when they all invariably meet up on a regular basis, or even live together.
Power to the people is the name of the game in Switzerland, direct democracy is so ingrained in our society that I think people can’t resist resisting if they haven’t had THEIR say. I hope the upcoming vote will settle it once and for all. Back in the day, we in the Romandie resisted the obligation to wear a seat belt until it came down to the vote and then went along with what the majority had (intelligently) voted.
I’m just disappointed and frustrated by the lack of solidarity for the greater good and think about all the diseases we could control or even eradicate like Polio, Smallpox, etc in the past, and am dumbfounded by what is happening now.
Thanks for your comment, Melina. It’s particularly interesting to hear from a Swiss in Spain, because you can compare two very different Western European attitudes to vaccination. You brought up smallpox and I’ve been thinking about it, too, because it’s a case where vaccinations were required in many parts of the world. In the United States, the Supreme Court ruled against an individual’s right to refuse a vaccination for smallpox in 1905. The judge writing for the majority acknowledged the fundamental importance of personal freedom, but also recognized that “the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.” It looks like Switzerland may be headed this way, too.