Viktor Orbán, who until fairly recently, even after the coronavirus had already reached Hungary, was traveling all over the world, eventually came to the conclusion that perhaps having such a cavalier attitude toward the coronavirus crisis at home was politically not the best response. He moved into a self-quarantine of sorts. He could be seen walking the long corridors of the prime minister’s office looking serious and concerned. Then, about two days ago, he changed posture again. He now makes surprise visits to hospitals where coronavirus patients are being treated. And, while earlier, he would not wear a mask, he now sports full protective medical gear, from top to toe. As he put it in his radio “interview” this morning, his “instinct” dictates that this is the right thing to do. And he has done well to listen to his instincts.
On the other hand, I’m not at all sure that his instinct about the severity and the duration of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences is correct. He is convinced that his government’s answers in 2010 to the global financial crisis, which were adequate then, will work this time. What happened then? In Orbán’s interpretation, as the result of all the money taken from the banks and multinational companies “the economy began to pick up.” The only difference between now and then is that this time “we don’t have to wait for years for the results because the economy will find itself back on the straight path within months.” He added that he doesn’t consider “the huge economic downturn that economists generally envision inevitable.” If there is a good plan, and his plan obviously is a good one, Hungary may come out of this a winner.
But there is a problem on the health front. COVID-19 is spreading in Hungary, with mini-epicenters developing in nursing homes. According to an article that appeared in Azonnali, the directors of nursing homes and assisted living facilities requested guidelines from the ministry of human resources about how to handle the situation, but for weeks they received no answers. For example, at one point the residents couldn’t have visitors but were allowed to shop in the local stores. While the directors were waiting for instructions, in at least two or perhaps even three facilities several people became infected. Two of the facilities were in Budapest and one was in Nagymágocs in Csongrád County.
A large facility housing 500 people and maintained by the City of Budapest is at the heart of a political controversy at the moment. Yesterday afternoon 126 older residents who were infected with the coronavirus were moved to the Korányi Institute, which, ever since 1880, has been treating pulmonary disease patients. The government latched onto the sad case of this massive infection and used it to attack Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest. Several Fidesz media hacks accused him of being personally responsible for the high numbers.
Karácsony claimed on Wednesday that, ever since March 9, the home has been rigorously following all the rules and regulations mandated by the government. In the last month no visitor was allowed in the facility, and the infected patients were separated from the rest of the residents. Moreover, the Budapest municipal government did its best to find face masks and appropriate disinfectants for the facility since, according to Cecília Müller, the chief medical officer, the government is not responsible for providing personal protective equipment to the staff of facilities maintained by the city.
Karácsony suspects that the coronavirus arrived with a resident who visited a hospital for some other ailment or a medical checkup. Testing returning patients would be necessary to stop the spread of the virus, but the city’s request for testing was denied. At that point, Budapest hired a private firm to do the testing, even though the Hungarian government doesn’t recognize the results of testing done by others.
Although the facility was checked out only a few days ago and everything was found to be in order, yesterday, when Dr. Müller arrived, she discovered several problems. Critically, she learned that there is no constant medical supervision in the facility. She ordered “continuing education” for the staff on ways of preventing the further spread of the virus. In addition, she found that they were not using the prescribed disinfectants, and the ones they had on hand were not stored properly. In addition, some of the “cleaning products” had “expired,” which surprised me because I have never noticed an expiration date on a cleaning product. Of course, of these shortcomings, the most serious is the absence of constant medical care, but, as it turned out, the medical team that is responsible for serving the facility is under the jurisdiction of Cecília Müller’s own “operative division.” So, if they didn’t show up, it is the government’s and not the city’s fault.
Meanwhile, Origo started the attacks on the City of Budapest and its mayor, Gergely Karácsony. Here are some headlines: “Gergely Karácsony’s team didn’t step inside of the home for seniors on Pesti út; they were not interested in what was going on there,” “Gergely Karácsony and the leadership of the capital ignored the nursing home full of coronavirus patients,” and “The coronavirus is raging in the capital’s nursing homes, Karácsony is doing nothing.”
Fidesz party spokesmen began to echo Origo, accusing Karácsony of wrongdoing. While the city argues that requests to Müller’s office were ignored, Fidesz charges the city administration with wanton neglect. As Mária Vásárhelyi pointed out in an article titled “Deadly Game” in Élet és Irodalom, this is not the first time that Viktor Orbán has used epidemics for his political aims, even at the price of human lives.
April 10, 2020