A few days ago, every independent newspaper and internet news site was full of stories about Miklós Kásler’s embarrassing appearance as part of the “operative staff,” and therefore it was assumed that Viktor Orbán would make sure that the minister remained hidden in order to save the government from further embarrassment. But it is not so easy to get the minister in charge of healthcare out of circulation at the time of a pandemic. He may not appear in public, but the ministry for which he is responsible still has duties to perform. And, unfortunately, the ministry’s performance is subpar.
Here are a few examples. While Kásler’s ministry, most likely directed from above, has forced hospitals to free up 36,000 beds, a private hospital, the Buda Health Center (Budai Egészségközpont/BEK), with 120 free beds, has been ready to accept coronavirus patients ever since March 15. BEK completed all of the necessary paperwork to convert part of the hospital into a center for infectious diseases. On April 2, the director of the institution wrote a letter to Kásler, who promised to issue the permit within days. Nothing has happened since.
Kásler’s Easter letter to hospital directors requesting physicians to volunteer in the Szekler regions of Romania was also greeted with some dismay. Since doctors over the age of 65 can’t attend infected patients, there is a shortage of doctors as well as nurses to deal with the pandemic in Hungary. It was for this reason that on March 12 the government forbade healthcare workers from leaving the country, with the exception of individuals specifically exempted from the ban by Miklós Kásler. The oddity of the request is that, although many people are infected with the coronavirus in the Transylvanian region of Romania, the request has nothing to do with the pandemic. In fact, the two Hungarian inhabited counties, Harghita and Covasna, managed to stay relatively free of infection. The hospitals in Hungarian regions who turned to the Hungarian government for help were asking for a couple of anesthesiologists. Apparently, so far there are no volunteers.
From the media I got the impression that it is the ministry of foreign affairs and trade which handles purchases of equipment necessary for the protection of health workers and the public. At least, it is Péter Szijjártó who every few days announces the arrival of protective gear from member states of the Turk Council, like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. I assume he wants to show the usefulness of Hungary’s excellent relations with the Hungarian people’s alleged relatives. But, as 168 Óra pointed out, it is becoming ever more difficult to follow the fate of this personal protective equipment.
Today, for example, Szijjártó announced that Hungary had received 100,000 masks from Kazakhstan. He then went to Bosnia-Hercegovina, where he announced that Hungary was donating 200,000 masks and 10,000 pieces of medical protective clothing so that the western Balkan country could safeguard its defense capacity in the event of a possible new migrant crisis. So far, Hungary has also donated 300,000 masks to Serbia and Croatia and 100,000 to North Macedonia.
On April 6, Szijjártó published a statement about Hungary’s gift to North Macedonia, which reads in part: “If these countries are weakened both literally and figuratively, their defense capacity will also be weaker. If a large illegal migratory wave arrives, of which unfortunately there is a chance, then this country will not be able to resist it and will not be able to stop the migratory pressure. So, it is in the interest of us, Hungarians, to have a line of effective defense against migratory pressure as far south as possible.”
Of course, this is just talk. The few thousand masks and gloves given to North Macedonia have nothing to do with future migratory pressure and the safety of Hungary. The gift is a signal by the Hungarian government that it is still interested in Macedonian politics, especially in light of the forthcoming elections, currently postponed because of the pandemic. This kind of statement also serves to remind Hungarians that, although the coronavirus pandemic is on everybody’s mind, the real threat remains migration.
At the same time, let’s see what the situation is in Hungary, starting with Budapest. On March 20, Mayor Gergely Karácsony requested information from the capital’s health experts about the equipment necessary for the city to battle the pandemic. They then put in an official request for this equipment to the national government. Instead of the five million surgical masks that they requested, they got 75,800; they needed 20,000 protective pieces of clothing but to date got only 1,000; they requested 500,000 rubber gloves and got 25,074; they asked for a million FFP2 masks and 100 arrived. Because of these shortfalls, the city has been obliged to purchase 1.5 million surgical masks and 250,000 FFP2 masks.
On the other hand, the Hungarian government has plenty of money for projects that have nothing to do with the pandemic. Here are a few examples. The Hungarian government decided not to suspend its generous agricultural program for Transylvanian farmers, amounting to 53.5 million euros (18.71 billion forints) in the Pro Economica Foundation’s “de minimis” agricultural tender. The money was distributed on Good Friday. What is even more outrageous is that the government, because of the pandemic, can now seek TAO support (Corporation Tax Allowance) for projects without the recipients having to contribute anything to the total cost. So, while all sports activities are at a standstill, the sports clubs will receive even larger sums of money than before.
If that weren’t outrageous enough, the Orbán government decided to go even further. You may recall that banks were hit with a special tax amounting to 55 billion forints, allegedly to assist the government in its fight against the pandemic. But the government then decided that as long as the banks continue their support of their favorite sports clubs, they will be forgiven half of this special tax. László Békesi, minister of finance in the Németh and Horn governments, is appalled. In a Facebook note he wrote: “To make it clear: the special tax imposed on commercial banks is not intended by the government to supplement lost budget revenues, increased public spending, support of companies that go bankrupt, or assistance for people who lose their jobs. They want to spend it on already wastefully fattened sports organizations…. As an economist and a person who loves sports and supports it on both a theoretical and an emotional level, I am outraged at this intemperate nonsense, cynicism, and abuse of power.”