“Switzerland Punches Above Its Weight” “The Small Alpine Country Is a Financial and Diplomatic Global Player” “Geneva is the Rome of Multilateralism” We have all heard and read these headlines. While not quite touted like the United States as the “indispensable nation,” Switzerland is often presented as something special.
How special? In numerous James Bond movies, Switzerland has been represented by Swiss bankers eager to help the villains hide illegal money. Impeccably dressed, the gnomes of Zurich fulfil an idealized image of Switzerland. Where else but St. Moritz, Gstaad, Crans Montana or Verbier would the world’s 1% and royalty come to frolick? Where else but Switzerland would the international commodities trader and tax evader Mark Rich choose to incorporate his silver millions but the tax haven of Zoug?
Switzerland, The Monaco of the Mountains, that’s where.
Except that recent headlines in Reuters, The Guardian and elsewhere have reported food lines in Geneva that contradict this image. “In one of the world’s richest and most expensive cities, poor and migrant workers are suffering under coronavirus restrictions,” Reuters recounted. “Hundreds queue for food parcels in wealthy Geneva,” The Guardian headlined. “Over 1,000 poorer working people and undocumented migrants waited for hours for basics,” read the image shattering story. “The line of people stretched for more than 1km outside an ice rink where volunteers were handing out about 1,500 parcels to people who started queuing as early as 5am.”
Poor people in Switzerland? How could this happen? One never sees bread lines when Bond’s adversaries visit their silver haired bankers to check on their hidden treasures. Sure there are simple farmers high up in the mountains, but they are not poor. They are self-sufficient and content making cheese and playing Alpine horns while pausing to take care of their cows.
When the story of the bread lines appeared, people sent letters of condolence to Nicholas Bideau, head of Presence Swiss. Think of all the negative publicity that had to be countered. After the 1990s crisis over Nazi gold stashed away in Swiss banks, after the 2009 international kerfuffle over the national vote limiting the number of minarets in Switzerland, the crystalline image of impeccable Switzerland had been tarnished once again.
It turns out that not all Swiss are Zurich financial moguls, overpaid Geneva UN diplomats or yodeling smiling farmers. “In a nation of nearly 8.6 million, 660,000 people in Switzerland were poor in 2018, the charity Caritas said, particularly single parents and those with a low level of education unable to find work after losing a job,” The Guardian revealed. The food lines were not just the result of the current economic crisis due to the virus. There were homeless, unemployed and low paid workers in Switzerland before the pandemic. The Covid-19 crisis unveiled a reality that had been swept under the image-created rug.
Does this mean Switzerland is not special? Mais non. It means that Switzerland is a country like other countries. It may have a very high median income; it may play an important diplomatic role larger than its size; it may attract tourists from all over the world; it may be a leader in…(fill in the blanks) But it is still a country like others with its share of people living in or near poverty. Whatever image the Bond films may give, Switzerland, like all countries, has inequalities; it is a normal country. The only question is the degree of inequality within each country and what countries do to assist the disadvantaged.
Switzerland, like the Nordic countries, for example, has less inequality than the United States. And it may have more wealthy citizens than the Nordic countries because of tax differences. But to imagine that Switzerland has no poor people, and that the coronavirus has not caused enormous economic suffering, is to play into an idealized image creation. After all, even Roger Federer loses tennis matches and needs injury-induced operations.
So while image creation is important, it should not be totally divorced from reality. I do not feel sorry for Nicholas Bideau. There will be no letter of condolence from me. He has much to present as a positive image for Switzerland.