Why the Swiss are reluctant to wear face masks

Can we expect more masks in Switzerland with the reopening of restaurants and shops? Keystone / Alexander Becher

As Switzerland eases up on the lockdown, more people are out and about but very few Swiss are wearing masks in public. Why is that? An unscientific look at what’s behind the reluctance.

This content was published on May 11, 2020 - 13:53

The debate on whether people should wear face masks in public has been going on for weeks. Experts and the government disagree, which has fueled even more discussion as the country reopens much of the economy this week.

Q&A: Do you wear a mask when you leave the house? What do you think about how the issue of wearing masks is being dealt with in Switzerland?

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Despite the raging discourse on the topic, it is relatively rare to encounter people wearing masks on the streets in Switzerland. This is in part due to a mask shortage. It wasn’t until last week that masks were available for purchase in shops and this meant that masks were quite expensive.

But the reasons go beyond mere practicalities. The limited mask sightings also stem from the attitudes and views on wearing masks in Switzerland. Many immigrants from countries where wearing a mask has become a part of everyday life, have trouble understanding the Swiss reluctance to wear one. took a small - and not representative - survey of readers and Swiss residents to understand what is going on.

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Not accustomed to it

One reason is that there is simply no tradition of wearing masks in Switzerland in the way there is in some Asian countries, many of which suffered from the SARS epidemic two decades ago. Before the coronavirus outbreak, no one wore a mask in public in Switzerland. Even today, those wearing masks are viewed as overly cautious and concerned with protecting themselves. In other words, people are wearing a mask to protect themselves not others.

Unclear about the benefits

In the absence of a mask wearing tradition, people need to be convinced that changing habits makes sense. However, some in our survey said that there remain doubts about the effectiveness of wearing a mask. For example, someone on Facebook said, “I have read a lot that it [wearing a mask] can be counterproductive and now I don’t know what is right anymore.” Another argued that “I think that wearing one can affect our breathing.”

Following the recommendations

The government and many employers recommend that people wear masks on public transportation or when it isn’t possible to maintain a distance of two metres such as in a hair salon. As a result, many follow these recommendations but don’t go beyond this. Some readers commented that masks aren’t necessary when the public follows social distancing and hygiene rules.

For the environment

There are also environmental concerns at play. One reader wrote, "Gloves and masks will be lying around in the garbage. That makes me think. That certainly does no one any good. Above all, our planet."

Feeling healthy

In our spontaneous survey of readers, many people said they don’t wear a mask because they either feel healthy or because they had already contracted Covid-19 and recovered. However, experts have said that there is still a lot we don’t know about how much immunity people have after Covid-19 and how much asymptomatic people can transmit the virus.

For more information on the Swiss government recommendations and rules on wearing masks, see the Swiss Public Health office websiteExternal link.

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