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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Orbán confident of “free summer” as Covid infections break records and deaths set to top 20,000

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

Prime Minister Orbán, Friday state radio interview: Healthcare reserves “don't look bad” - with 10,000 plus hospital beds and 1,700 ventilators. Just one question remained not only unanswered, but unasked: are there staff to service them?

Prime Minister Viktor Orban - illustrating the government website report on last Friday's interview on state radio

​Good leaders need to look assured, inspire confidence and remain positive: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a master at this, invariably appearing determined, decisive and ready to march onwards, conquering the next problem. Invariably too, he's always ready with a quick turn of phrase to suit the situation. Thus it was that last September, he declared his “war plan” which would enable Hungary to overcome the coronavirus while helping the economy to regain strength. Even international football games would be staged, such was the genius behind this grand strategy. The success of the plan “could be assessed by the number of deaths” he said – or better put - “the number of lives saved”. Of course, some people look the part of good leaders, but fail: good leaders deliver the goods, over the long term. Their deeds match their words. At the time Mr Orbán announced his “war plan”, Hungary was experiencing some 4,700 infections a week, and the death toll since the virus first hit six months previously came to 650. Last week alone, Hungary registered a record 62,000 new infections and 1,700 deaths, including 275 – another unwanted all-time high for 24 hours - reported on Friday. By tomorrow, the official death toll will surely top 20,000 victims. (It's currently 28 shy of this figure.) Discounting some very small nations, Hungary is now the second worst performer worldwide in terms of deaths relative to population – as even the government-sponsored Hungary today reported on Friday. And with 218,000 active sufferers – another unwanted record – even if a magician could wave a wand and stop new infections overnight, the deaths would continue rising for some time to come. As several friends have written, all this is rather puzzling considering Hungary has, seemingly, been galloping ahead with inoculations - officially now more than 1.9 million citizens, with 700,000 of those twice jabbed.

That's roughly one in five of the total population, which, as the government never fails to stress, is nearly twice the average of the EU. (Except it equally always fails to note that half of those treated have the Russian or Chinese vaccines, which are not approved by the European Medicines Agency - and thus the inoculation may not be valid if and when a 'vaccine passport' is system is set up.) Nonetheless, these unapproved vaccines still appear to be effective, so what's going on?

The government implies – but, note doesn't clearly state it is the identified reason – that the more dangerous “British variant” is behind the horrific numbers. This is quite possibly one cause, but without any data released, who can check? In any case, other countries have seen the spread of this mutation, but the devastation has not reached levels here in Hungary. One problem is, of course, the shortage of healthcare workers caused by poor conditions and even poorer salary levels. Hospitals are stretched to the limit, and beyond, according to some independent websites.

Again, even the government sponsored Hungary Today admits there is a staff shortage (that editor had better be careful). It cites healthcare economist Eszter Sinkó as saying that even before the virus, “serious problems arose out of the fact that there were [too] few skilled workers in the system.” Yet the prime minister has frequently insisted that lives are more important than money, and that healthcare will get all it needs to combat Covid. Which sounds excellent. But, according to Management Forum, a Hungarian business website, the Orbán cabinet spent almost Ft 290 billion (roughly $1bn) on sports along with Ft 154 billion ($0.5bn) on churches between March 20, 2020 and March 19, 2021, ie the first year of the pandemic. In the same period, it assigned Ft 60.7 billion – roughly $200 million - to healthcare. It also might have been wiser not to try to reorganise the national health service in the middle of a crisis, but if you insist on such a path, at least consult the various professional bodies - and heed their arguments. The Hungarian Chamber of Doctors has repeatedly claimed it's views have been ignored. Who do you - or more importanly Hungarians - believe? In mid-March, just one year into the pandemic, one opinion survey found Fidesz voters gave the government 3.8 out of a potential 5 maximum for its handling of the crisis. Opposition voters ranked the performance with just 1.9. To win a war, governments really need their nation's full support: Orbán clearly hasn't got that. But in any case, Hungary's historical performance when it comes to serious military conflict has been poor, at best. A few battles won, perhaps, but when it comes to wars, Hungary more often than not has come off second best (though it's almost always others who are the cause of the calamity, please understand). Whatever, perhaps next time the prime minister wants to inspire the country, he might think of a metaphor other than war to describe his plan. And, more importantly for all of us, then make sure he delivers the results.

I'm sure we are all looking forward to a "free summer".

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