Orlane Moynat, Margot Chauderna and Pr Marlyne Sahakian
Many countries around the world imposed strict lock-down conditions for several weeks during the Spring of 2020, due to the worrying sanitary situation of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Swiss citizens were subject to semi-confinement measures, which gave people a certain flexibility in their movements despite closed borders with neighboring countries (Fall, 2020). The order to “stay at home” was positioned as an individual responsibility, more than an obligation. At the same time, a series of services were deemed as essential and basic, including health care services, but also food provisioning and banking.
Financial support in the form of unemployment benefits and loans was provided in certain sectors. Education was ambiguous; schools were shut down while remote teaching varied greatly in a country that prides itself on a federalist system, with great diversity in how each Canton, or state interpreted the national directives. Thus, while a portion of the population was working on the front lines, a majority of Swiss citizens found themselves at home. For people who were working from home and did not have financial nor health issues, the semi-confinement measures of Spring 2020 were experienced in relative comfort.
Based on empirical research in the form of in-depth interviews with twenty people living in Western Switzerland, there was a crucial need to find ways to re-configure everyday practices – mostly restricted to the home and surrounding areas. The diversity in which these practices played out related to different configurations, of work-leisure time, household composition, and spatial arrangements. While some people were working from home and saw their work load increase dramatically, others were either working part-time or not working at all. Some people were living with their partner, children, or friends, while others were living alone.
The interviews revealed a great deal of reflexivity among our research participants, who expressed feelings that we could interpret as wellbeing, understood as both hedonic – related to pleasure and the absence of pain and suffering – but also eudemonic – in the pursuit of ‘the good life’. Essential for the latter, most of the people interviewed in Geneva declared that this new configuration of daily life allowed them to be more flexible, have more time, and manage their time differently, or enhanced the need to live their lives as they see fit. This phenomenon can be connected to Max-Neef’s fundamental need for freedom, but also idleness and creation (Max-Neef, 1991).
Yet, this period also brought with it feelings of anxiety and discomfort regarding the overall situation, particularly not knowing the exact consequences of the pandemic and how long the measures were to last. Nonetheless, several people interviewed described their time during semi-confinement as a holiday at home, or a stay-cation: As expressed by Nadia (45 years old, living with her partner and their 12-year-old child): “So, (it was like) a semi-vacation rhythm I would say in the moments when we were together at home.”
What we found is that social relations are critical to understanding wellbeing, as tied to how people feel part of a community, or feel loved and appreciated. Rather than using the term ‘social distancing’, social scientists in Switzerland swiftly came together to emphasize how ‘physical distancing’ was hindering social relations (Gamba et al., 2020). While some participants in our study felt distanced from their close acquaintances and their usual social life, others enjoyed how the semi-confinement measures allowed for the strengthening of social relations within their household.
People living alone suffered the most from the lack of social relations, but also the burden of assuming work obligations and all domestic chores – including cooking regular meals, rather than eating out. Parents with children were able to spend less time commuting to work, and thus more time with their children – particularly in households where one adult was working more than another. This led to a strengthening of the intra household relationships, among many participants. Michelle, living in a large apartment in Geneva city center with her two children (13 and 18,5 years old), was working from home during the lockdown, and expressed it as such:
“The fact of having found a certain intimacy/proximity with the children… we finally found ourselves being together all the time: morning, noon, evening, even during the weekend … it caused a bit of shouting and some arguments but we also had some great moments and it was very nice.”
Despite the added complexity of re-configuring everyday life around the home as a central and common space, people generally felt that more quality time was being shared through activities and moments as families or house-mates. Sometimes this feeling was also tied to a reflection on how life rhythms dictated by work were hectic and how the semi-confinement offered a relief of everyday tensions – a time to catch one’s breath.
Linked to ‘stay at home’ activities are the impacts the sanitary situation had on the practices of leisure on people’s daily life. Being relieved from the need to go to work and social obligations outside the household, people had more time to do things they usually cannot or do not do, such as reading, sorting the house or preparing elaborate meals as leisure. People declared that they enjoyed playing games, watching films or doing sport activities together with other household members.
The climate was key to understanding the Swiss case since the population was free to leave their homes while respecting physical distancing and gathering restrictions. It was a particularly beautiful spring with very warm weather so many were able to enjoy time spent outdoors walking or biking in the country side for example. Those fortunate enough to have a private garden or balcony also enjoyed gardening or being outside in the sun. This access to private outdoors space was critical: those living in apartments in the city found ways to escape, by sitting out the semi-confinement in apartments or chalets in the mountains, as was the case for one family with small children:
“It’s just that in the garden you can sit with your toes wide open and just be there, you see them (the kids), they can scream, they can jump, you know, they can…I don’t know, there’s a feeling of freedom. And if there’s one thing that has changed after the confinement, it’s that I absolutely want a place where I’ve got outdoor space.”
Adele, 32, living in a big apartment in Geneva city center with her husband and their two young children (1 and 3 years old). They spent the semi-confinement period in her aunt’s garden-level apartment in the mountains.
The semi-lockdown made some people realize they could have a good time at home and enjoy simple moments. A woman interviewed in Geneva affirmed she had never actually thought about the ability of spending holidays at home as for her and her family they were meant for going away and discovering a new place.
“It’s true that I discovered a life at home which is not made of constraints, because as I told you on the weekends there are always social constraints or household chores etc. Whereas here, it was being on holiday at home and there we could appreciate the chance to live in a house, to have a garden and a terrace. The weather was nice and it’s true that I wondered about this bit of life that we tasted and that I had never lived before and I found a lot of advantages” Nadia (45 years old, living with her partner and their 12-year-old child).
Despite the wonderful holiday-at-home scenarios that has been painted above, the semi-confinement measures were clearly not easy nor pleasurable for everyone. While many people were able to spend quality time with other household members and relax, some people encountered difficulties of different kinds that made their semi-confinement particularly difficult. People declared they sometimes had trouble spending every day at home, especially when living alone without the distraction of work. For others, working from home was a real issue as they were lacking an appropriate space in the home for working, or sufficient support in their care responsibilities. This was particularly true of homes with small children, as daycare services were shut down.
These situations had a significant impact on people’s sense of wellbeing, creating some situations of distress, and a longing to return quickly to a more familiar organization of everyday life. How people then adapted to a relaxing of the measures was equally ambivalent: for some, certain changes in routines were maintained, but for others, there was a return to the rhythms of everyday life dating from before the semi-confinement.
As we write this blog post, neighboring countries to Switzerland are announcing new lock-down measures. In Switzerland, a Canton-led approach has not yielded expected results and national measures are expected to drop any day. While the first semi-confinement measures were experienced as something new, it is difficult to determine how people might experience another round of measures that might limit the ability to move freely across space. What we know for certain is that the COVID-19 pandemic has not only affected human health, but also human wellbeing – a much broader concept, that merits to be further studied in these times of uncertainty.
- Orlane Moynat, Research Assistant and PhD Candidate – Institute of Sociological Research, University of Geneva
- Margot Chauderna, Master Student – Department of Sociology, University of Geneva
- Professor Marlyne Sahakian – Institute of Sociological Research and Institute of Environmental Sciences, University of Geneva
Fall. (2020). Fenced In. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 38(5), 771–794.
Gamba, F., Nardone, M., Ricciardi, T., & Cattacin, S. (Eds.). (2020). COVID-19. Seismo Verlag, Sozialwissenschaften und Gesellschaftsfragen AG.
Max-Neef, M. A. (1991). Human Scale Development Conception Application and Further Reflections. Zed Books Ltd.
 All names have been anonymized.