Hungary Prepares to Relax Lockdown Rules as Week's Deaths Hit Record 1,767 to Surpass 25,000
Photo: Not to Miss out on the Government-mandated Positivity, the District XII Paper (controlled by a Fidesz council) Headline Shouts: "Life Begins again in the Hegyvidék [District]"
I believe it was early this year* that the Hungarian government got some of the sweetest news it could ever hear from a critic.
“The good news for the government is that propaganda works,” András Bíró-Nagy, Director and Co-Founder of Policy Solutions told his audience in a presentation on political developments in Hungary in 2020.
Considering Policy Solutions is a liberal-leaning think tank, leading Fidesz advisers must have purred with contentment on hearing this.
Of course, Mr Bíró-Nagy was not expressing personal preferences, but rather his professional judgement on the cold, hard results of his team's research into the effectiveness of the government's ruthless drive to control the narrative in Hungary's media.
But if ever there were doubts in anyone's mind over his conclusion, the results of a recent survey by pollsters Median into the Hungarian public's understanding of the effects of the coronavirus should banish them for good.
As reported by website 444.hu this week, almost two-thirds of Hungarians “have no idea” how many of their compatriots have died as a result of the pandemic.
The survey, conducted in early April, came just as infections had peaked at 52,000 in one week, deaths had exceeded the 300 hundred threshold in a single day and hospitals were struggling to cope with record patient numbers.
As the website noted, the death rate in Hungary had been the highest in the world for some weeks, with only the Czech Republic having more coronavirus victims as a proportion of population since the outbreak of the epidemic.
Yet in spite of the dire statistics, a mere 36% of Hungarians understood that deaths were within the 20,000 – 25,000 band.
Moreover, the consistent government line stressing the vaccinated numbers had certainly got through, with more than 90% of the population - that is including many opposition voters - judging the inoculation programme as going well.
In the ensuing fortnight or so since this survey, the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán relaxed lockdown restrictions one notch and promised further easings next week, including the opening of cafe and restaurant terraces, once the numbers of those receiving at least one jab has reached 3.5 million – about 36% of the entire population.
Fully aware of the success of plugging the vaccination numbers, Mr Orbán continued the line in his regular weekly interview on Friday morning.
“Out of the 8 million adult population that can be vaccinated, 3,145,000 have already received the first dose, with 742,000 more getting the shot very soon,” PM Orbán said, adding that “we are near the point where we will have vaccinated half of the population.”
Responding to foreign politicians who often criticize Hungary’s management of the virus, the prime minister said that, after Malta, Hungary is the country in Europe that has managed to inoculate the largest percentage of its population.
He also repeated his accusation that the opposition is anti-vaccination - an allegation strenuously denied by its leaders.
See govt website:
But while vaccination numbers look good, and indeed infections have come down from the awful peak at the end of March, last week still saw 30,300 new cases, with an infection rate per test over the past six days of 15.4% - three times the World Health Organisation's 'manageable' level of 5%.
More shocking still, deaths hit a record number of 1,767 – that's 252 each and every day - pushing the total beyond the 25,000 threshold.
Indeed, these numbers may remain high in part perhaps because of an induced, false sense of security brought about by the government trumpeting the 'success' of its vaccination programme.
Certainly I've noticed a seeming relaxation of public discipline when it comes to mask wearing. In a particularly blatant example yesterday during a visit to an Aldi outlet, two men, masks dangling, were chatting away loudly for some minutes near the nut dispensers. (If the manager of the Mészáros utca Aldi happens to be reading this, as a result I'm on a no-nut diet this week and you lost sales.)
For while it is true that Hungary has achieved good numbers when it comes to vaccinations, the propaganda glosses over the fact that inoculations are not fully effective until some 2-3 weeks after the second dose - depending on the vaccine and the individual body reaction.
As a result, the 3,252,579 who have received at least one jab constitute a deceptively attractive number, and not even the 1.386m who have had both doses are yet fully safe (and that's even assuming 100% vaccine effectiveness).
No doubt we will all appreciate the chance to sip some refreshment on a terrace as soon as it is safe, but if the rules are relaxed next week while infections remain above 4,000 a day (the number was 4,335 over the past week), something tells me that the death total could climb an awful lot above the present 25,000 level before the summer is out.
I wish everyone a safe and healthy week.
* Note: Try as I might, I couldn't find this quote in my notes, so it may have been at another event – but Andras Biro-Nagy most definitely said this in a public presentation at some point in the past year or two.
Policy Solutions has published a highly recommended annual commentary on Hungarian political developments for a number of years. The latest example is here (in English).