On 25 February 2020, Swiss authorities announced the discovery of the first known case of Covid-19 in Switzerland and assured the public that there was no reason to be concerned.
The first case identified in Switzerland was a man in Ticino in his 70s, who had returned from a trip to northern Italy, where 220 cases and 7 deaths had been reported.
The day before on 24 February 2020, Daniel Koch, the head of infectious disease at the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), was interviewed on RTS radio. He said that the nation was prepared and that gatherings such as carnival festivities should be allowed to continue in Switzerland. He said there was nothing to suggest that there was an increased risk of infection in Ticino, a Swiss canton that borders Italy. Instead he called for calm and perspective, adding that it was likely that Italy would control the outbreak. Koch also said it was too soon to implement measures that would ultimately do more harm than good.
At a government press conference the same day, Koch, who headed a team of experts at FOPH looking at the disease, said that the mortality rate of SARS-CoV-2 seems to be fairly similar to the seasonal flu, before he expressed uncertainty around the estimation. In an internal memo of the same date, obtained by the newspaper NZZ, Koch wrote that the virus is not going to spread as easily as the flu and because of this there is a good chance of maintaining control of the situation.
At the time there were around 82,000 known cases of Covid-19 and 2,700 deaths recorded globally, mainly in China, where the authorities had implemented a strict lockdown a month earlier on 23 January 2020 to halt the spread of the virus. In addition, numerous epidemiologists had published early estimates of the fatality rate, many of them far higher than that of the seasonal flu.
Across much of East Asia, governments had responded to this information by implementing systematic screening at airports and borders, widespread testing, and mask wearing. Across Europe, North America and much of the rest of the world, life continued largely unchanged.
However, in the weeks and months that followed it became clear, even to many of those that had previously thought otherwise, that SARS-CoV-2 was more than a seasonal flu.
In June 2020, during the relative calm between the first and second waves of the pandemic, Bertrand Kiefer, a doctor, ethicist and editor of the Swiss Medical Review, criticised some of the early communication regarding the pandemic in Switzerland. He thinks it was a mistake to reassure the public in the face of such high uncertainty. Kiefer believes it is better to be open and clear about what is and isn’t known. Offering assurances that turn out to be wrong undermines trust. It is difficult to get people to act when they have been told everything is fine only to later find out it that it isn’t. In addition to lost trust, the public hasn’t had time to adjust to what is really happening. Being frank allows a leader to be wrong without losing trust, while opening the door to a wider range of future actions.