Szijjártó says Russian vaccine will inoculate 1m citizens – OK, except the bit missing is - when?
Updated: Feb 7, 2021
Oh - and also the small detail of - how much?
Photo: The illustration on the government website to the post on Minister Szijjártó's interview today on state radio.
Péter Szijjártó, Hungary's Foreign Minister, announced on Friday that Hungary had clinched a deal with Moscow to supply two million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine, enough to inoculate one million citizens against Covid-19.
The deal was a controversial first for an EU-member state, because the Russian vaccine has not been approved by the Union's pharmaceutical regulator. The EU has confirmed, however, that any member state may sidestep normal rules in an emergency - provided it takes responsibility for the consequences.
Thus the news ended a working week on a high note, at least as far as the government was concerned, since both the infection and death rates have continued their downward trends - although perhaps not as much as might have been hoped.
As of today, official figures show 7,746 new infections over the past seven days, down 19% on the previous week's 9,591 cases. It represents the best figures since the first full week of October.
Deaths, at 627 for the past week, seem a little more difficult to curb: that comes out at just under 90 per day, and represents a reduction of just 9.5% on the previous week. However, while it's dangerous to pin too much on the figures for just 24 hours, the number reported today – at 'only' 64 – would represent a significant improvement if it can be sustained.
Against this, the country is likely to record its 12,000 death from Covid-19 today, which is not such a great record for a country of 9.75m people – especially when it looks suspiciously like the number is more like 14,000 deceased once unexplained extra deaths are factored in over November last year.
But with a total of just over 106,000 active cases of Covid and fewer than 3,800 suffering in hospitals, things are looking up. Just over 145,000 citizens, the vast majority healthcare workers, have been inoculated, including just over 8,000 who've had the booster jab, the government site states.
Progress, then, it seems. Except … this is Hungary, where one has to look very carefully at what is said, how it is said, ... and what is not said.
For a start, the government is continuing its decidedly bitter, ungrateful, disingenuous, sneering and at times outright mendacious campaign against the European Union.
Now it's true that some other EU member states are unhappy with the slowdown in deliveries of the Pfizer vaccine which the EU has been coordinating.
But most understand that producing a vaccine is not something done in your garage: it takes millions of man-hours of expert, minutely controlled experimentation, analysis, assessment and re-assessment of the results before a vaccine can be deemed safe for mass use on us, human beings.
If nothing else, pharmaceutical companies (at least in western democracies) face crippling payments in damages from victims if they get it wrong.
Yet leading members of this Hungarian government, of whom none have any experience whatsoever in the production of a bag of plain flour, let alone that of a safe vaccine for a killer virus, feel free to complain and snipe from the sidelines with no moral compunction - if they think it helps consolidate their voter base.
Take Mr Szijjártó as an example. This morning he appeared on the state radio programme Vasárnapi újság, which in this context translates as Sunday News. It is reported here, on the government website:
The headline reads: Szijjártó: it's in the national interest for the inoculation rate to be accelerated
Well, so far, so much of an abject truism – although to be fair, politicians the world over can come out with such stuff.
He goes on to stress, according to the government report, that it is not politicians that have given the green light to use the Sputnik V vaccine, but an expert body, the pharmaceutical regulator.
Now in any 'normal' democracy, this looks fine. But this is Orban's Hungary. It is where, for example, the non-parliamentary body which was responsible for national designations had objections to the renaming of Budapest's Ferihegy Airport back in around 2011. The result? The body was promptly extinguished, and Ferihegy became the more imposing Liszt Ferenc International.
Whether 5% of non-Hungarian travellers realise the significance of the name is by-the-by: the message to Hungarian institutions was simple: if PM Orban wants it, you'd better give it, or face the consequences.
So, when the prime minister said nine days ago, when speaking about jabbing Hungarians with Sputnik V: “All we need is a piece of paper,” you can bet the members of the pharmaceutical regulatory body took notice, and they duly gave the Russian vaccine the green light last Wednesday.
The foreign minister went on to note the need to prevent deaths and economic loss from the pandemic – as if anybody disputed that – and the positive experience where the Russian (and Chinese) vaccines have been deployed. Thus far, in less-than-transparent states, mark you.
He stresses this over several paragraphs, ultimately launching an attack on EU Commissioner Vera Jourová, who he deems "shameful and disgraceful" for stating that Hungary would see its EU subsidies withheld if it did not follow the rule of law, as set by the European Commission.
This, of course, is outright mendacity, indeed a supreme example of such, because it takes the commissioner's words totally out of context. Neither the much maligned Ms Jourová, nor the Commission, has ever said Hungary would find its subsidies withheld for importing and using a vaccine which the EU regulator had not approved. It is a total distortion of the concerns over the rule of law which the European Commission, and the European Parliament, have raised regarding Hungary.
And Mr Szijjártó knows it.
But many regular Hungarians, who spend most of their waking hours simply making a living, do not know it, and will believe the EU has threatened Hungary with a suspension of payments for seeking to buy the Russian vaccine.
Mr Szijjártó knows that too, but he's happy to mislead them if it keeps his party in power and him in a top job.
But now here's the final irony: the Fidesz government is spending millions, if not billions of forint giving the impression it is frantic to protect Hungarians from every threat, real or imagined, from whatever source.
The coronavirus is certainly not imagined, we can agree on that.
But despite certain meticulous details regarding the delivery of Sputnik V – the state news agency MTI cited the minister as saying that the vaccine would be delivered in three stages, with doses for “300,000 people in the first month, 500,000 in the second month and 200,000 in the third,” - there is no clear indication of exactly what constitutes “the first month” or any subsequent months.
Will it be February, or March, or …... when? I can't find any details of the exact timings of this otherwise much talked up deal.
Could the publicity-sensitive regime have omitted this detail by accident?
The Sputnik V vaccine is yet to be fully tested, but might indeed prove to be a worthy tool in the fight against the pandemic.
Let's hope it does so, otherwise many in Hungary will pay the price, both in financial terms (no details on that either, by the way) or potentially, in lives.