Geneva, Wednesday 8 April 2020
For the last week or so, I’ve noticed beefy blokes in hi-viz orange hanging around our park. I didn’t really give it much thought. Maybe I should have. This morning, there was a ramping up of this presence; The vehicles were the giveaway: the Civil Protection unit.
I had never noticed, so close to where I have lived for 24 years, that right among the trees on the far edge of the park, there is an underground entry to something big enough to have a drive-in entrance. Today, I see there is, in fact, a very discrete Civil Protection sign. An opportunity to ask one of the hi-vizzers what all this was about presented itself. As I approached, he was making admirable headway into a fistful of sandwiches; it was clear he needed to keep his not inconsiderable strength up for whatever protective task he might be assigned. I asked him what he and his buddies were there for. He took two steps back; whether he saw me as a potential contaminator or was simply appalled by my heavily accented French, I don’t know. He answered though without interrupting his lunch. “We’re here to assist the population in the event of a national emergency!” he stated through a spray of crumbs and mature Gruyère. “May I ask what’s down there?” I enquired politely indicating the ramp down which a Civil Protection vehicle had just disappeared. “A shelter for the population in the event of a national emergency!” he replied with dogmatic authority having moved on to a plum jam doughnut. “Is it a big shelter?” I asked, now intrigued. “Yes.” he replied. “Is there food and water down there?” I asked. “Yes.” he replied. “Chocolate?”I asked. He smiled. “Beds?” I persisted. “Yes.” he replied. “How many?” The last nourishing morsel at the bottom of the paper bag suddenly took all his attention.
Then I started to piece things together. On our side of the park, only about fifty metres from our front door is a very discrete low concrete structure. Yesterday, it was open and I could see some steps going underground. There were a number of vehicles from the Services Industriélles de Geneve (SIG) – the outfit that brings us our water, gas, electricity and internet connection. The distance between the SIG guys and the Civil Protection guys was all of 200 metres. The penny dropped! Our park is the roof of one huge underground shelter and all this preparatory activity must have something to do with the COVID-19 pandemic!
I shouldn’t be surprised really. Switzerland, since the early days of the cold war, has been massively prepared for national emergencies; in particular, nuclear war and threat of invasion. Consider this: in 1963 the Swiss Federal Law on Civil Protection stated “Every inhabitant must have a protected place that can be reached quickly from his place of residence” and “apartment block owners are required to construct and fit out shelters in all new dwellings.” A survey published in 2006 found that Switzerland had about 300,000 nuclear shelters in homes, institutions and hospitals, with about 7.5 million places, as well as 5,100 public shelters adding another 1.1 million places. This meant that there was adequate shelter for 114% of the population!
The measures to fend off the threat of invasion of Switzerland are no less radical. Every Swiss male between 19 and 34 is in the army and has his uniform, rifle and ammunition at home. In the 1950s, the army carved hangars and airbases out of those lovely mountains and strengthened sections of highways for runways. Strategic points near border crossings have pre-dug holes into which explosives can be dropped to blow the roads in case of imminent invasion. Some of those pretty chalets along the lake road up to Bern are, if one looks closely, massive concrete bunkers; the green window frames and lacy curtains have been painted on. It is no surprise then that this tiny peace-loving neutral country spends more per capita on its military than any other. Switzerland, it would seem, is prepared for pretty much any kind of national emergency. Apart from being pretty and clean, it is also a safe place to be. I am very pleased that, of all locations to do lockdown, I can do it here.
Wait a minute though… I would have thought being confined in an underground shelter with hundreds of others would not be the best place to practice social distancing. Furthermore, I can’t see how the military’s preparation to deter potential invaders can fend off the coronavirus as it has already snuck over the border undetected. Nevertheless, there is talk of mobilising the army… but to support the health services. Fair enough! But maybe the authorities are also considering the possibility of civil unrest? I have no doubt at all that the Swiss army’s response to this eventuality would be swift and efficient.
There are five businesses that are booming as a result of the lockdown: games, whether indoor or outdoor, like scrabble and badminton; gardening stuff especially seeds for vegetables; reading material both electronic and in print; bicycles; and electrical appliances such as fridge-freezers, televisions, laptops and gaming consoles. Makes sense.
A glorious victory to me on the putting mat winning 2 and 1 (I sunk 16/17 putts.) That’s 12 games to 6.
Hoping you are all well, safe and calm. We’ll get through this.