The Swiss have voted to keep vaccine passports by a clear majority. I live in Switzerland (but cannot vote), and in this essay I’ll present some analysis of why this outcome may have occurred.
Firstly, what was the vote actually about? It was a referendum on whether to keep the COVID law, which authorised (among other things) the implementation of the vaccine passport and contact tracing systems. As such, although passports are effectively a form of coercion, this wasn’t directly a vote on mandatory vaccination. There were two sides: ‘No’, meaning scrap the law and end the passports, and ‘Yes’, meaning keep it.
That’s all in theory. In reality, of course, the vote is already being used by politicians to argue for lockdowns for the unvaccinated (about one third of the population).
So – what went wrong for the ‘No’ side? I believe there were at least three factors that fed into each other:
- Unlike the British Government, the Swiss government doesn’t release the core data you would need to argue against the vaccine passport policies.
- For the second time in a row, the ‘No’ campaign chose its messaging very poorly. The campaign they ran was unconvincing.
- Like elsewhere, the news is dominated by the Government’s own narrative-building efforts and uncritically accepted reports – even nonsensical claims. In particular, public health officials have been spreading misinformation by convincing people the unvaccinated are unsafe to be around even if you’re vaccinated (which makes no sense if you also believe the vaccines are highly effective).
I will analyze each factor below.
Despite this, we should recognize the possibility that how people voted had nothing to do with any campaigns or policies, but simply reflects their pre-existing vaccination decisions. As we can safely assume almost nobody voted ‘Yes’ while also choosing to be unvaccinated (as this would simply be a vote to impose expensive and awkward restrictions on themselves indefinitely), we must also assume, given the results, that almost everyone who chose to take the vaccine also chooses to try and force other people to take it.
The psychology of this is probably core to the state of the world right now and deserves a much closer look. However, today I’ll make the simplifying assumption that campaigns and arguments do have at least some impact and analyze it through that lens.
The simplest and most ideologically neutral arguments against vaccine passports is that they are:
- Illogical, because they imply the vaccinated have to be protected from the unvaccinated, which suggests the vaccines do little to suppress infection which in turn suggests there’s little point in protecting the vaccinated from the unvaccinated.
- Ineffective, because Covid vaccines aren’t sterilizing so they allow infectious vaccinated people to wander around spreading infection, quite possibly without realising it. Thus they won’t impact case numbers and this seems to be born out by case curves.
- A form of mandate, which is immoral because you’re forcing people to take a substance they don’t need/think could be unsafe, and they might be right.
To prove (2) you need to have data on the rate of infection among the vaccinated. In England the population can not only see this data, it’s also made available in both the Government’s preferred “adjusted” form and also in its pre-adjusted form. The UKHSA explains the adjustments, the data is age stratified, can be tracked over time and we can even watch the public arguments between different government agencies as they debate how that data should be presented and used. Thus you can point at it and show that the vaccinated get Covid and spread it, and show that the claims of efficacy rely on huge statistical “adjustments” combined with assumptions about group psychology, as the raw data actually shows negative effectiveness.
In Switzerland, like in most of the world, none of this has happened because the Government’s Covid dashboard simply doesn’t provide data on vaccination rates for anything except hospitalisations and deaths. End of story. Unless you’re willing to use foreign data to argue against a local policy, the matter being voted on simply could not be opposed using a data-backed argument of any kind. Of course, it couldn’t be supported with data either, but people remember the claims that vaccines are highly effective against infection.
To prove (3) you would need reliable data on vaccine injuries. No such data exists. Although the Swiss Government does collect reports of adverse events, these data suffer from the same problems as the same data in other countries, namely, rampant under-reporting and a steadfast refusal by the medical establishment to take the reports seriously. My fiancé has several friends who have been injured by the vaccines here (Moderna seems to be quite aggressive compared to AstraZeneca – I don’t know anyone in the UK reporting injuries). None of them has received any kind of help from the medical system. One went to a doctor and was surprised when the doctor said she had the exact same type of problem (missing periods); the advice was simply to go home and wait to see if it got better on its own. That was months ago but it never did get better. Meanwhile several friends of mine reported that the vaccines made them so sick they were confined to bed for a day each time they got the jab. Again, no reports were filed at any point. This experience aligns with this series of interviews with hospital workers, where several nurses assert that doctors are systematically discounting any possible connection between vaccination and illness, even when patients say directly their problems started right after vaccination. This sort of thing is not exactly confidence-building in the quality of the safety data.
Regardless, for whatever reason – perhaps their ads would be blocked if they raised it – the ‘No’ campaign stayed away from the topic of safety and personal choice.
Just like the first time the Swiss voted on Covid measures, the ‘No’ campaign was primarily run by a group called the Friends of the Constitution. As the name implies this is not actually a dedicated anti-Covid campaign group and I’ve felt both times that the campaigns have been quasi-hijacked by this group’s pre-existing agendas and interests.
The messaging by ‘No’ boiled down to three points:
- Covid measures are mass surveillance.
- Say no to divisions in society.
- Say no to endless measures.
Of these points, really only the third feels like it has any force, and it’s primarily a vague assertion about what the Government might do in future. While I personally believe endless measures are pretty much where we’re at now already, a lot of people still think all this has some sort of near-term end date. And while the passports have created very large and obvious divisions in society, these are – from the perspective of the vaccinated – a division by choice, one that the “divided” could choose to end by getting the jab. And because the shots are free and the Government/media more or less refuses to acknowledge the possibility that a negative cost:benefit ratio might exist for anyone, the vaccinated can see no logical reason why anyone would refuse. So while this language tries to make it sound like other kinds of within-living-memory social division (e.g. racism), it’s not. It’s a unique thing more akin to religious conflicts than anything else.
The message about mass surveillance is especially problematic. The difficulties with logic and honesty during Covid times are not entirely restricted to the public health world. There are two parts to this: passports and contact tracing. The passport system is not actually a form of mass surveillance with the current infrastructure, and contact tracing isn’t being done at the moment, hasn’t been for some time, and when it was it was done using local data collection that was only provided to the Government if a case was actually detected. Moreover, the claim that this is all about mass surveillance is effectively a claim it’s not about fighting Covid. That’s a very serious allegation but isn’t made with any accompanying evidence to prove it, ignores that the infrastructure built so far actually works hard not to engage in mass surveillance, and, finally, ignores the fact that the Government already has mass surveillance infrastructures anyway.
Let me flesh out the claim I just made about vaccine passports, as it’s probably not obvious why I think that. The QR codes are large and high density because they contain all the data of the certificate itself, meaning that the apps that read them don’t have to contact any remote server to verify the certificate. Moreover, the apps are open source, no data is saved locally, all the technical documentation is available, it is distributed also outside of the app store (on Android), and you could even make your own version of the verifier app if for some reason you suspect the version being distributed through the app stores doesn’t match the code being made available. But if that was happening, it would be prima facie evidence of a conspiracy so at that point you could just reveal it. NB: The infrastructure doesn’t have to be designed this way, yet it is.
So this argument has to boil down to “but it could be changed in future”. Yes, it could, but that would get noticed and would then probably trigger another referendum in which mass surveillance would actually be the primary topic – and also the ‘No’ campaign wasn’t making that claim: it was saying these systems are already mass surveillance. It would be especially difficult to convert passports into mass surveillance because the software engineers behind the scheme already proved no such surveillance is required for the scheme to ‘work’, using whatever public health definition of work they think they’re achieving. Moreover, such an infrastructure could just as easily be put into place using cell tower records and banking systems, and in fact this has already been done a long time ago. Governments around the world routinely track their citizens in all sorts of ways, including at scale. Showing us how that infrastructure worked is how Edward Snowden ended up in Russia. They really don’t need vaccine passports on top of that.
A vaccine passport system is an especially illogical form of mass surveillance because – even if it did work the way the campaigners implied – all it would tell governments is what bars, restaurants and events people happen to visit, which is not especially important information, and compliance is already quite low so they wouldn’t even get reliable records of that either. My guess is I get checked about half the time I go out. The rest of the time the business owners don’t bother asking.
Overall, I can’t shake the feeling the campaign group behind ‘No’ might contain a lot of people for whom privacy and surveillance are just their thing, and they came to see Covid as a way to raise funds on which their preferred messaging and campaigning could ride coat-tails. The end result has been an ineffective and unconvincing campaign even to the people it should strongly appeal to. And it didn’t convert anyone who has already taken a vaccine.
The U.K. is a little unusual in that someone’s launched a news site that challenges the public health establishment (this one). I’m often reminded of the problems conventional journalism has when British friends send me links to BBC News stories, like the story they published about the Swiss referendum by Imogen Foulkes.
She starts by presenting a cartoon made by one guy, posted on one billboard in one station, specifically in order to troll a set of anti-mandate protestors, as an example of “Swiss yes campaign posters”. In reality, there wasn’t a Swiss ‘Yes’ campaign, and the report goes downhill from there. A few paragraphs later, she is blaming large data errors in the BBC’s graph of cases on Switzerland, saying: “Countries do not always release figures every day, which may explain some of the sharp changes in the trendlines.” In fact, the Swiss Government does release data every day and its dashboard shows no such data errors – the flaws were introduced by the BBC or the university it’s sourcing this information from. Foulkes quotes a 23 year-old who thinks the vaccine passport means “I can know everyone in here is safe, because they are all vaccinated, tested, or recovered” without pointing out that this is wrong, then she tries to ‘fact check’ a student who correctly points out she’s at little risk of Covid by claiming she might get “serious and long term” health consequences from an infection. Actually less than ~2.5% of people still report any symptoms of Long Covid 12 weeks after infection and those seem to mostly be psycho-somatic. Covid especially isn’t serious for young students and it’s misinformation to claim otherwise – but Foulkes isn’t done! She just keeps going and claims there aren’t enough hospital beds or staff in Switzerland, although the Government’s own statistics show that the country has unusually large capacity margins, with ICU usage usually being below 80% of capacity (most countries run at more like 90-95% utilization), which has at any rate fallen by half compared to what it was at the start of the pandemic – and astoundingly the article just keeps getting more and more deceptive. That was by no means a complete fact check. This is one of the reasons the reputation of ‘fact checkers’ is circling the drain: if they actually cared about misinformation, keeping up with the BBC’s output alone would consume all their time.
The situation worldwide is hardly any better. People who may have doubts about the integrity of public health narratives in the U.S. are more or less forced to rely on a handful of websites – such as the Brownstone Institute – and a couple of bloggers: Alex Berenson, an ex-NYT journalist, and El Gato Malo, a firebrand who mixes Covid analysis with outspoken political advocacy while also pretending to be a cat (many of his articles are quite good, but needless to say, quirky). The U.S. CDC doesn’t release information about vaccine effectiveness in anything close to a useful form, and, bizarrely, actually has commercial conflicts of interest because it turns out to be a holder of patents on vaccine technology, which it licenses for profit to the very same pharma companies the U.S. Government is supposed to be regulating.
Switzerland sits somewhere in the middle. It does have conventional media outlets that are sometimes public-health-skeptical, but they are ultimately the work of conventional journalists and thus do very little original research, preferring to focus on social commentary. For example, they generally won’t search the scientific literature or raw data to double check arguments made by the public health agency, as happens often on this site. For sceptical news there is the Swiss Policy Research site, which has published some good articles, and in particular documented a long litany of false claims and incorrect statistics published by Swiss media. There is also Corona Transition, which functions more like the Daily Sceptic. Nonetheless, being brand new sites with few resources, all such new outlets struggle to get the same level of readership as existing newspapers and TV stations.
So the lack of detailed data, news no more reliable than anywhere else and a very high level of trust in government, means the quality of debate about public health measures is quite low. It’s thus easier for the Government to pass off various unfounded assertions as ‘facts’.
Despite the above, there are some reasons to be positive. The percentage of the population that voted against the measures is very large, even if not a majority. In no way can it be said this is a fringe concern. Although there was no official ‘Yes’ campaign, in reality the might of the entire establishment, including the Government, media, academia, the civil service and the medical community, have pretty much all been doing an endless ‘Yes’ campaign for the last two years – and still around 40% of the people who voted rejected their arguments. Additionally, from reading comments and talking to people, a major motivation for those who voted ‘Yes’ was the belief that they faced a choice between vaccine passports or more lockdowns. Thus the vote can also be interpreted, if you wish, as a vote against lockdowns.