GENEVA - I knew I was in trouble a few days ago when I looked in the mirror and saw a sheepdog looking back.
Giselle, who has been keeping my shaggy hair in reasonable shape for years, is now in forced retirement until April 19. She is not alone.
In an effort to contain the deadly coronavirus, the Swiss Federal Government has ordered all bars, restaurants, sports facilities and cultural spaces nationwide to shut down. Only essential businesses, such as grocery stores and pharmacies remain open.
Clearly nobody thought to inform the authorities that beauticians were one of life’s essentials. So, activities for the country’s 8.57 million inhabitants are severely limited until at least April 19.
That is when the government will take stock of COVID-19 and decide if the situation has improved enough for it to ease up on the extreme measures that have turned this picture-perfect Alpine country into a ghostly landscape.
Last week, for the sake of my mental well-being, I decided to break free of days of home-bound self-isolation and take a walk among the coronavirus-free trees. Also, my food supply was running low, so I figured it was time to stock up.
I wasn’t fully prepared for the “Brave New World” I encountered. The streets were largely deserted and desolate. Even the construction boom, which has been making life in this city a misery, has pretty much come to a halt.
The parking lot in my usually bustling neighborhood shopping mall was half empty. All the high-end and bargain-basement stores were closed. Only two supermarkets remained open, with long queues of people, separated by two meters, patiently waiting for their turn to enter.
By the time my turn came, a pack of “body snatchers” had swept the shelves clean of most packaged goods. Bread, in particular, took a big hit. There wasn’t a crumb in sight. And, yes—there was no toilet paper.
My misery found a lot of company. People were kind. They would throw me a quick smile of compassionate understanding as we hastily passed each other in the aisles.
Switzerland borders Italy, for weeks the country worst-hit by COVID-19. But a recent statistical analysis shows that Switzerland with more than 24,000 confirmed cases and more than 950 deaths, has the highest rate of COVID-19 infections in the world, based on the size of its population.
Despite this sobering news and the lockdown in Italy, the Swiss border at Ticino remains open to allow some 68,000 Italians working in Switzerland and seen as vital to the economy to enter.
Swiss authorities reacted quickly after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed on Feb. 25. Three days later, they took the unprecedented step of banning public gatherings of 1,000 or more, disappointing thousands of would-be merrymakers looking forward to the country’s biggest, most popular carnival in Basel.
Other casualties included the world’s biggest art fair in Basel, major Swiss watch exhibitions, the zany Inventions Convention and the Geneva International Motor Show, which attracts half a million visitors every year.
The ban has had an immediate adverse impact on the activities of the United Nations and other international organizations headquartered in Switzerland.
On March 3, the U.N. Human Rights Council canceled 200 side events to reduce the number of participants attending. And, nine days later, the council suspended its session, a week before its ending date because of the spread of coronavirus.
At the time, we did not fully realize that this was the end of all “normal” activities at the United Nations. The U.N., which used to be a beehive of activity, is basically shuttered. The staff is at home teleworking. Only a few essential personnel are left to roam in this cavernous building.
These radical changes, of course, have affected the way I report. I’ve had little problem adjusting to working from home as I’ve been doing that for years—long before “teleworking” became a fixture in peoples’ everyday lexicon.
However, the difference between working at home now and working at home in pre-coronavirus days is stark and not comforting.
In the past, my self-isolating homework was interspersed with trips to the U.N. to attend press conferences, special events, socializing and gossiping with colleagues. It was easy to move around in the city or travel to out-of-the way places in search of a story.
But that was then, and this is now. Like everyone else, I am learning how to maneuver in a virtual world.
In-person press conferences have been replaced with virtual ones, presenting a number of drawbacks. For example, a few days ago, I plugged myself into a World Health Organization virtual press conference on the coronavirus pandemic.
In his opening remarks, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said his greatest concern was the impact this deadly virus could have if it gained a foothold in countries with weaker health systems.
I immediately focused on sub-Saharan Africa, where cases of COVID-19 are rising. I quickly pressed *9 to ask a question. Unfortunately, with 277 journalists on line, many of whom also were queued up to ask a question, I didn’t stand a chance-- no matter how furiously and frequently I pounded *9 on my keyboard.
One of my biggest regrets as a reporter in this atmosphere of caution and fear is my reduced ability to tell the stories of desperation that deserve to be heard but are being forgotten.
Catastrophic events with dire consequences for millions of civilians caught in conflict are playing out in silence. So are the tragedies of children dying from hunger and disease, of women being raped as a tactic of war, of refugees fleeing persecution and violence.
I have figured out that my best hope of shedding a bit of light on these dark corners of misery is by linking them with the COVID-19 pandemic, a singular threat dominating every aspect of our lives.