Comment

Hungary’s weaponising of the coronavirus crisis

István Szent-Iványi / Mar 2020

Photo: Shutterstock


The pioneer of unorthodox political measures and solutions, Hungary is experimenting with another unprecedented response to the epidemic threat. According to a recently submitted legal motion, the Parliament would give full authority and full entitlement to the government which means among others a complete shutdown of the Parliament - the basic institution of liberal democracies for democratic control and scrutiny - for an indefinite period (according to the general expectations by the end of the year). Even with a two-thirds majority of the ruling party Fidesz, the Parliament has not yet been a reluctant and disobedient body, but it seems that nonetheless it is too inconvenient for the government. I note that the British Parliament was permanently sitting and working throughout the Second World War, even in its most critical phases.

Hungary does things differently than other countries. In Hungary, the key actors of the Epidemic Operative Board are persons in uniforms: the high ranked police officers. There are military patrols on the streets, 140 strategic companies controlled by the Ministry of Defence, but the Terror Combatting Centre is also on alert and standby. It gives the impression that protection against the epidemic is mainly the task and duty of the law enforcement and military organisations.

Of course, this is not surprising after taking into account the critical shortfalls of the Hungarian health care and epidemology system. Now it brutally backfires that in recent times the health care system has been neglected and sidelined, financial resources have been withdrawn, the necessary reforms postponed and medical and nursing staff have left the country en masse. Against this background Hungary is confronted with the coronavirus desease. Previously it was considered cheap demagogy to claim that ventilators should be purchased instead of stadiums. In retrospect, the so-called demagogues seem to be increasingly justified.

On top of that, the National Office of Chief Medical Officer, the National Institute for Health Development, the National Centre for Public Health and the National Centre for Infectology and Epidemiology were abolished by the authorities with effect from March 31, 2017. Certainly they thought that these institutions are superfluous and no longer needed. Now, we desperately miss and need them.

To add insult to injury, the government appointed Ms Cecilia Müller as a new national chief medical officer who, as a former GP and home doctor of the village Nagyvenyim, has hardly accumulated rich experience and competence in dealing with pandemics; but obviously there is a major and single advantage of her appointment, namely she is a lay secular pastor of the parish church of Mezőfalva, a village in Central-Hungary. Hopefully she is earnestly praying for us and intervening in favour of us with the heavenly authorities. As a matter of fact and given the well-known conditions, that could be the most promising protection in Hungary against the pandemic threat and we really need it now.

In the context of this story that unorthodox measures and approaches in Hungary go back a decade and exactly this is the case with the recent pandemic. Government communication immediately created a link between migration and the epidemic on the basis that both are linked to mobility. This is not altered by the fact that no asylum seeker has died in Hungary until now. One of the first measures was the spectacular enforcement of border guard and border protection. Since 2015 aliens and foreigners are the usual suspects for everything. No surprise that the government's blame game targets aliens again.

The government has adopted a major rescue package, but its serious shortcoming is that it does not affect unemployment benefits. In Hungary, unemployment benefit is unprecedented for a short period of just three months. It has long been demanded that the duration of the unemployment benefit be extended, which would be particularly justifiable and necessary now. However, the accepted package does not include this demanded extension.

Only the most fanatic supporters of the government believe that the epidemic can be kept at bay by suspending Parliament and giving full authority and powers to the government. Perhaps it would be quite another, more important thing to do now.

 

István Szent-Iványi

István Szent-Iványi

March 2020

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