Covid-denial fares badly at the polls

Switzerland went to the polls yesterday for its regular quarterly round of referenda. There were three questions on the ballot: two popular initiatives (that is, proposed citizen-initiated laws), both opposed by the federal government, and one federal law, passed last March, whose opponents petitioned against it, triggering a referendum.

Of the two popular initiatives, one – to introduce federal regulation of nursing – was carried decisively, with 61.0% voting yes and majorities in 25 of the 26 cantons. The other, to introduce a lottery system to select judges, was rejected even more decisively, with 68.1% against and failing to carry a single canton. (Official results are here; that’s the French version, but you can click at the top right to get German or Italian.)

But the big interest was in the federal law, on Covid-19. It provides the legal basis for Switzerland’s “health pass”, which requires people to be able to prove vaccination, immunity or a recent negative test in order to be able to go to bars, restaurants, cinemas and the like. So of course it was opposed by the usual crowd of anti-vaxers, science-denialists, “libertarians” and political opportunists, who gathered 75,000 signatures to try to have it overturned.

All of Switzerland’s major political parties, with the exception of the far right, undertook a joint campaign to support the law. And yesterday they prevailed, very clearly: 62.0% voted in favor, including majorities in all but two cantons. Turnout was an unusually high 65.7%.

This is not the first time the Swiss have voted on Covid-19; back in June, a referendum promoted by the same groups attempting to overturn the original pandemic law was defeated 60.2% to 39.8%. Despite the heightened controversy and mass demonstrations of this (northern) summer, support for the denialist position has actually gone backwards.

It’s unlikely that the news of the new and possibly more contagious Covid strain, the Omicron variant, would have come soon enough to influence many voters. But it’s a sobering reminder of where the denialists want to take us. Only 24% of South Africa’s population has been fully vaccinated, compared to 65% in Switzerland, 67% in the European Union and almost 73% in Australia.

The developed world has been criminally negligent in failing to do more to promote vaccination in poorer countries, especially in Africa (most of which is much further behind than South Africa). But at least the signs are that most people understand the importance of vaccination and are giving short shrift to those who want to undermine public health.

It’s also another feather in the cap for Swiss direct democracy. It doesn’t always get the right result, but more often than not, bringing the people along in partnership is a better strategy than making decisions over their heads.

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