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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Coronavirus: After Deaths Top 300 in one day - Is there Light at the end of the Covid Tunnel?

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

Photo: Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister: "We are working, the task force is also working. And by this evening, according to this morning's plans, we will have inoculated another 83,000 people." Published: Saturday, April 03, noon. Source - Govt Website: In the event, in spite of government exhortations, this target proved elusive: according to my arithmetic (from government numbers), the teams fell short by 6,200 or so jabs. But that might not have been the authorities' fault - if people don't show up for whatever reason, you can't blame the government for that. (Well, not so easily – but see later.) Your correspondent, however, played his part: Organised by my better half, I reported for a Moderna jab a few minutes ahead of schedule at 19.27 last night, and was duly processed - in more or less adequate social distancing conditions, and by pleasant medical staff - within 10 minutes. And so far, with no adverse side-effects. So, personally, no complaints. Indeed, if such efficiency were the norm here, the Hungarian forint would be challenging the Swiss franc as the European currency of last resort. Alas, one swift, trouble-free vaccination doth not a summer end to the pandemic make. A friend called into a District III hospital earlier this week reported having to queue for something approaching two hours in a cramped corridor with up to 60 others. (Somewhat to my surprise, he rolled up his sleeve for a first dose of Sputnik V in his arm.) But this is well-appointed Budapest – reports from the rural provinces speak of frequent queues of long-suffering public waiting outside clinics for a jab. But whatever the shortcomings, all this effort has got the needle into 2.3 million folks, including 905,000 twice over, meaning the government can boast (and rest assured, it does that very well) that it has inoculated 22.9% of the 9.7 million population, against an EU average of 12%. It is not quite so cock-sure when it comes to the infection and deceased numbers, however – and with good reason. This past week saw a new one-day record of 302 deaths reported on Wednesday morning, and though numbers since have eased back, the weekly toll of 1743 – an average of 249 people every day – is another unwanted high. It takes the total number of victims since the start of the pandemic to 21,715. Last week, an additional 52,000 new cases were recorded, leaving the country having to cope with 247,000* Covid sufferers – that's around 2.5% of the population, and of these, more than 1,400 are on respirators. Tragically, independent news websites report terrible death rates for those on respirators, due to a lack of qualified healthcare staff able to operate them.

(* Correction - I originally wrote 218,000 - this was the number for one week ago. And this is 2.5% of population, not 2.2%. Apologies.) These bad numbers beg the question: how come? If Hungary has inoculated almost twice as many citizens (proportionally) than the EU average, why are the numbers so bad? The government blames the “British mutation” for being highly infectious, and causing the upsurge since late January – plus the opposition for being “against vaccinations” - a charge the opposition say is based on twisting their words. A Hungarian friend proffers another reason: “People are so afraid to go to hospital because of the terrible conditions. So they wait, hoping to get better, until they are really ill. By then, it's too late,” she says. Speaking to foreign journalists this week, Timea Szabó, an MP with Dialogue, a small, liberal-green party, said the lockdowns came too late, and the public are often left confused by contradictory messages. “Though the government ordered another lockdown [in early March], they started this 'public consultation' on opening the country at the same time, so the public has been very confused as to what is happening, and that's why discipline is low and loose, especially out of Budapest, and outside the big cities,” she said. In addition, Ms Szabó argued that decision to restructure the national health system from January, resulting in up to 5,500 medical staff refusing to sign new contracts and leaving a service now headed by “government puppets” rather than leaders experienced in handling epidemics has left the frazzled healthcare service even more overstretched than ever.

It doesn't help either when the government makes sudden, unilateral moves, such as diverting HUF 3.3 billion (EUR 9 million) in funding for health facilities away from District III, Szabó's own constituency, as it did at Christmas. "This is still without explanation," she said, "except as an act of revenge" because the people voted for the opposition at the last elections. Meanwhile, a group of independent Hungarian media last week wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister and Cecilia Müller, the Chief Medical Officer, asking for access to hospitals in order to inform the public fully and accurately on the situation. Government spokesman Zoltán Kovács rebuked the journalists, saying: “Hospitals are for healing, not for shooting footage,” and accusing “left-wing” websites of disseminating “fake news”. The government task force properly informs the public every day, he said. In spite of the horrible figures, there are faint signs of improvement. Last week's total of new infections – 52,118 – are bad, but are down by some 10,000 on the previous seven days – a reduction of 16%. And deaths this weekend, though still averaging about 225 a day, appear to be heading in a downward direction after Wednesday's all-time high. For sure, the government and medical staff will be eyeing this week's numbers with special attention, desperately hoping these trends continue.

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