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During the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in autumn of 2020, Switzerland suffered among the worst excess deaths/infections compared to its European neighbours. By international indicators, the Swiss Federal Council and Federal Parliament presided over a weak and delayed reaction to the rise in infections. While most scientists recommended stricter and timelier procedures, the federal and cantonal (state) governments were reluctant to implement such measures.
Why did Swiss politics have so much trouble using scientific advice during a major national crisis? The answer lies in the friction between science and politics owing to an “input overload” from the political system.
Science versus input overload
The science taskforce, set up by the government, acted as the conduit between an established expert community of scientists and policymakers, giving recommendations weighted from academics from an array of disciplines. Political actors signaled that scientific advice was only given the same weight as input from economic and social interest groups, which simply equated the logic of science with the logic of politics. By implication the search for truth and empirical evidence based on rigorous and intersubjectively verifiable methods should be treated on the same level as power and interests. Not surprisingly an institutional exchange between science and politics broke down. A commission within the federal parliament even attempted to pass a motion preventing the taskforce from issuing public statements, illustrating a frustration by lawmakers towards a taskforce that it felt was not integrating scientific advice well enough into their power and interest-driven policy making process.
In the Swiss political arena scientific advice was considerably disregarded because the science taskforce and its input was competing with simultaneous and numerous inputs from corporatist, pluralist, federalist and direct democratic subsystems. The addition of a scientific input therefore led to an “input overload” where the government fended off scientific advice to reduce the pressures against it and protect its own discretionary power to cope with the pandemic.
Corporatism: the first input via social partnerships and banks
Corporatism in Switzerland is a key example whereby informal policy making sometimes prevails over formal government channels to create policy. This is where employers’ interest groups and trade unions together form social partnerships which then bargain over public and private policy with the state. During Covid-19, they activated informal lines of communication with known government contacts to implement policies like new rules for short-term work and improvements for low-wage workers.
This silent but efficient corporatism is continued where we see a culture of trust and familiarity between the Federal Department of Finance, banks and employer organisations. Within a few days, the Department and five major banks established a system which enabled firms to request credits from their bank without much additional analysis of their financial standing.
Pluralism: a well-developed pressure politics
As opposed to corporatism, pluralism underlines the influence of business associations, particularly restaurants, retail and the hotel industry in exerting direct pressure by demanding public policies without proposing their own private policies. It is less collaborative, although also bolstered by personal ties: the restaurant and hotel owner interest group GastroSuisse successfully lobbied for an early exit for its member firm from the first Covid-19 lockdown. In the second wave, they gained far-reaching media coverage when avoiding further restrictions on the restaurant and hotel industry. Its leader Casimir Platzer was “on a first-name basis with almost all federal councillors”.
Federalism: the power of Cantons vis-à-vis the federal government
The federal government is also constrained structurally, within a federal system where twenty-six canton states largely exercise sovereignty over their own territories. Cantons enjoy considerable autonomy in policy-making, but cantons and federal agencies are still “interlocked” with the latter relying on the cantons for policy implementation.
However, the Swiss Federal Council introduced two major exceptional situations which tightened the interlocking of the federal government and the cantons: an “extraordinary situation” from March to June 2020 handed unilateral power to the federal level, and a longer “special situation” from June 2020 to April 2022 charged the federal government with leading policy to fight the pandemic, but in consultation and agreement with the cantons. This bound the two together in a tighter interlocking relationship: the federal government became dependent on negotiations with the cantons. It lost its discretionary decision-making power which it enjoyed during the ‘extraordinary situation’.
Citizens deciding on epidemiological questions
Given Switzerland’s direct democracy status, the federal government must also deal with policy being closely scrutinised by the people directly in referendums. A June 2021 vote in particular sought to repeal a major Covid-19 law. It failed, but it also put pressure on the federal government to design policy based on its likelihood to survive public votes.
Importantly, for scientific questions a high level of knowledge or cue-giving by knowledgeable political parties is important so that referendum decisions are not driven by dogma or “folk epidemiology”. Both of these pre-conditions were critically absent during the pandemic. Research shows that many popular votes are based on “hot cognition”, where pre-existing values and attitudes are heavily predictive of voting behaviour – and are likely unreliable when it comes to deciding health policy.
Furthermore, with the June 2021 referendum, following partisan cues was not really possible as parties were not at the forefront of debating and designing such policy during the crisis. Moreover, voter attachment which would cause this bloc voting is now in decline.
One major explanation for why the Swiss Federal Council and the Swiss Federal Parliament were reluctant to follow the scientific task force during the pandemic is because of input overload. Several access opportunities mean that social partnerships, banks, business associations, cantons and the people at large all restrict the ability of the federal government to take discretionary action.
In critical situations, such as in the fall of 2020, the government may therefore have had reason for muting science to remain capable of acting. However, we argue that scientific knowledge should not just be taken alongside the other inputs: overall its contribution means that it deserves to be given special status in future policy-making.