Some may know Daniel Koch better as “Mister Corona”, the nickname that became something of a trademark in Switzerland during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before becoming a top official, Daniel Koch practiced as a physician around the world for more than 14 years. Following a stint in an Andean hospital in Peru, he became involved with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), first in South America, then in war-torn Sierra Leone, Uganda and Rwanda, and later in South Africa. In 2002, he moved to the Federal Office of Public Health. As Head of the Communicable Diseases Division, he worked for various departments, including his role in pandemic response and, most recently, as COVID-19 delegate to the Federal Council. Today, Daniel Koch advises companies and associations on crisis management and crisis communication.
As former Head of the Communicable Diseases Division at the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), Daniel Koch became the face of Switzerland in the fight against coronavirus. Today, the doctor is an independent advisor in crisis management and crisis communication. In our interview, he gives his assessment of the past year, discusses what’s important now and shares his personal takeaways from the crisis.
Mr. Koch, how are you doing today without the FOPH job on the front line of the crisis?
I am doing very well, thank you. I remain busy and continue to help by advising on the crisis - just in a different position today. I like my new role. I receive many enquiries from the sports sector and support companies with specific advice on crisis management. Then there are also always requests for speeches or my assessment of the current situation.
What insights from the current situation do you pass on to companies for successful crisis management?
In terms of crisis management, the coronavirus crisis has brought home what we really already knew. In a crisis, the person who normally leads should lead. Crisis management isn’t something you can delegate. This applies to every country, every company. No leadership team can say we’ll have a crisis manager to take care of everything if a crisis hits. It doesn’t work. It’s precisely in a crisis that those in charge need to take a stand. Another important lesson: you can never be fully prepared for a crisis. It’s technically impossible. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a crisis, it would just be an emergency to deal with. So crisis preparedness shouldn’t be based on materials or resources, but on the right – a positive – mindset. I think it’s very damaging to focus on worst-case scenarios. It stirs up fear. And fear is dangerous. At some point, it spills over into frustration and aggression. It’s the same in any crisis.
In a crisis, the person who normally leads should lead. Crisis management isn’t something you can delegate.
How do you think Switzerland has done in terms of crisis management?
I think the Swiss approach has worked well to a large extent. For the Swiss people, it’s important to keep in mind not only the worst-case scenario, but also what’s possible. From the start, it’s been important to involve the people and update them regularly. In our culture, this works better than outright bans or drastic measures. But of course, mistakes have also been made. If you compare excess mortality in the second wave internationally, Switzerland does not fare well. Which mistakes happened and why is something that still needs to be analyzed in detail.
For the Swiss people, it’s important to keep in mind not only the worst-case scenario, but also what’s possible.
Can you understand the criticism, which has been very harsh at times?
Absolutely. You have to appreciate that everyone experiences the crisis from their own point of view and from within their own environment. And if you see your life’s work under threat, then of course you’ll want to look for the culprits. People seek ways to deal with it, and a lot of frustration arises in the process. On top of everything, there’s all the suffering. That’s why it was so important from day one that the Federal Council didn’t just consider the health aspects but also attempted to cushion the blow of the crisis through financial and support measures. On the one hand, it’s important to protect the health of the population. On the other, a society cannot be healthy without a functioning economy. Striking the right balance is very difficult.
On the one hand, it’s important to protect the health of the population. On the other, a society cannot be healthy without a functioning economy. Striking the right balance is very difficult.
What do you see as the biggest challenge at the moment?
Our main concern right now is the end of the pandemic. It will end at some point. We’ll see measures being scaled back globally. And this is where I think we’ll face a major challenge. How will the continents deal with each other again? How will normal relations between countries resume? Apart from the movement of goods, travel is currently still greatly reduced and restricted. Reflecting on how things were before the pandemic, you have to ask how everything will settle down again.
What does this new reality look like for you?
Regardless of a pandemic, the times are always changing. And things are never the same as before. We don’t live the way our grandparents did, and our grandchildren won’t live the way we do. Something of this pandemic will certainly remain. The event was too big, too powerful and too dramatic to simply fade without a trace. What will stay exactly and to what extent? That’s difficult to say. It will be a reality that no one is bothered by or wants to discuss much. It will simply be normal, as it is. It will be important to hold on to our values. We must take care of our health, preserve our liberties, respect and solidarity, and not sacrifice them to certain authoritarian tendencies.
It will be a reality that no one is bothered by or wants to discuss much. It will simply be normal, as it is.
People like to say there’s an opportunity in every crisis. Do you see one?
I’m not convinced that’s really true. The best thing, of course, is not to have a crisis at all – that’s the simple truth. If we’d continued to live without COVID-19, we would certainly have been better off around the world. So I’m always a bit resistant to the idea that you need a crisis to discover new opportunities. I see it more like this: when you face a crisis, you have to look at how you can survive it with the least amount of damage, or how you can adapt. Flexibility is absolutely key. The opportunity, then, is the realization that we can achieve a lot by being flexible and that we can learn from each other.
When you face a crisis, you have to look at how you can survive it with the least amount of damage, or how you can adapt.
A crisis is a challenge day and night. Where do you get your strength, your calm?
My experience certainly helps me. And it’s probably in my nature not to be the anxious type. Fear is something that is very paralyzing. In addition, I am a very good sleeper. I always make sure I get enough sleep.
For you personally, what is the most important lesson from this crisis?
I’ll take with me an awareness of the need to be even more careful and even more positive in communication. Experts in particular can tend to communicate too negatively. It’s extremely important to tell people the truth, but always in a participatory way. If they feel under duress, they quickly lose their motivation. It makes positive communication all the more important, even if the situation doesn’t look so rosy. In retrospect, I personally could have done more in this regard.
I’ll take with me an awareness of the need to be even more careful and even more positive in communication.
And finally: How would you sum up the last year?
I think last year was a big challenge for everyone. Not only for the authorities, but above all for the people. There was a lot of suffering and a lot of fear, but also a lot of solidarity and social spirit. I very much hope that we can take some of the positive aspects into the future and close or improve any gaps that have emerged.