It is almost depressing to look at District XIII’s Pozsonyi út nowadays, the once pulsing centre of Budapest’s trendy Újlipótváros neighbourhood is eerily quiet and empty; a street where in normal times it is extremely difficult to find a good seat in a café, let alone a parking spot. However, in the coronavirus pandemic one restaurant closed after the other.
Today, apart from the vegetable and grocery stores only a barbershop and bookstore are open, and one last café is keeping up appearances. Inside, there are mostly employees sitting at the tables. A smiling waitress is serving customers at the counter, not wearing a facemask. “I would not say it is business as usual but there are still people coming in to have a cup of coffee or meet friends,” she says.
This place also quickly adapted to the changed circumstances as they started a delivery service. “If people cannot sit here and enjoy our coffee, they at least would like to enjoy our sweets at home,” the waitress says. “We mostly deliver to people who live or work in this area. So, in that sense our customers are pretty much the same, even though the surrounding offices all closed down.”
The Tunisian-born United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees employee Khalil Nabhan also used to work at a side street of Pozsonyi. Now he has been confined inside his apartment for almost three weeks. “The first five days were very hard,” says Nabhan, who has never done a lot of home office work before. “It was a complete mess. But by now I think I have gotten the hang of it.”
Nabhan has made himself a new quarantine routine. He wakes up around 8am and starts working almost immediately. Then he has a couple of smaller breaks to do yoga or cook. Nabhan only leaves home once a week to take a short walk and buy groceries. He sometimes likes to open the windows of his ground-floor apartment and sit outside, though he has to be careful because his neighbour, an elderly lady, also sunbathes in the yard.
For him social distancing is not only about his own safety but about that of others too. “You cannot know whether you have the virus or not, and I would be very devastated if it turned out I infected somebody.” So he tries to stay away from the yard when he sees the lady.
He spends the evenings talking to his friends over the phone or on his computer. “Interestingly, I speak more to people now than I did before the virus. But it is still weird to be alone all day. I wrote a list of all the things I would like to do after this crisis, and on the top of the list it says talk to someone I meet in person.”
Nabhan’s girlfriend Valerie Laukat left Budapest to visit her family in her hometown, Berlin, almost a month ago. She was planning to return within a couple of days but little did she know Hungary would close the borders. She and he talk over the phone now. When the 28-year-old student of Budapest’s Andrássy University can return remains unknown.
“We need more flexibility”
Many other German students studying in Hungary find themselves in a similar situation. All auditoriums have been empty since mid-March. “Most foreign students went back to their home countries,” says Dr. Éva Toronyi, a lecturer at Semmelweis University Budapest.
Normally at this time she would be teaching German medical students how to use different kinds of sutures in surgery, but coronavirus has made the usual class impossible. “Instead we hold lessons online,” says Toronyi, though this is almost impossible in a praxis-oriented subject such as experimental surgery.
But the experienced lecturer finds the necessary compromises: “Normally the class has a theoretical introduction, a practical demonstration and an opportunity for students to improve their own abilities by practising the sutures on pigskin. Now, this last one is of course impossible over the internet but at least I can already teach the theory part.”
At home she makes videos in which she can show how to stitch. Toronyi is also holding exams via video call. “I try to prevent my students from having to unnecessarily prolong their studies. This is not necessary; one has to react to such a situation with flexibility.”
Following new regulations, Toronyi, who is also a kidney specialist treating transplant patients, cannot work at her hospital at present because she is over 65 years old. With her husband and their grandchild she moved to the countryside, where they have a house with a garden. “It is a lot better to be there if you cannot go to the streets anyway.”
Many Hungarians view this similarly, using their newly won job flexibility to go to Lake Balaton, for instance. Budapest-based author and organiser of cultural events Pétér Muszatics can be found there at the moment. Together with his partner and their small daughter he commutes between Tihany and Keszthely.
His work already allowed him flexible working conditions before the crisis: “Actually I do not even notice the restrictions. When I am writing a book I am also retreating for weeks and I barely meet anybody.”
The only reason he is afraid of being infected by the virus is that he might transmit it to his parents: “Both are over 70 years old and as such belong to the risk group. So we are especially careful because of them.”
As the organiser of various film festivals, Muszatics is concerned how long the crisis will last. He already had to postpone one event that was planned for June.
New ways in times of crisis
Of course, there are jobs where the transition to home office is a little more difficult. One of them is the parish office. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought serious changes to the daily life of Gábor Smidéliusz, who is a pastor at the Lutheran church in District V’s Deák Ferenc tér. They too had to close down their church after a decree by the Bishop congress.
“It was very important for us not to leave our congregation without any spiritual guidance during these difficult times,” says Smidéliusz. “The biggest question we had to face was how to keep our worships without letting people in. Luckily we had a video expert in our community who helped us set up our online worships on our YouTube channel.” Bible study groups were also brought online.
The young pastor is very surprised to see how their core audience has changed. Many elderly who regularly attend services cannot keep up with the online world. “Instead most people who follow us are between 45 and 65 years old, a generation which normally has very little contact with the church.”
Smidéliusz and his colleagues try to keep in touch with their elderly members through phone calls. “In general I find these difficult times inspiring. You have to re-evaluate how you were doing things and have to come up with a new way to meet the new demands.”
Staying healthy can be trendy
Teodóra Frenyó found an especially creative way to deal with this new situation. The graphic designer and marketing expert started producing her own hard-to-find respirator masks. “I have friends in Italy and because of them I was following the development of the crisis from the very beginning. When I saw that in Hungary we had run out of masks too, I thought there must be a way to do these at home.”
The resourceful designer researched on the internet and found a way to make a mask from everyday materials found in stores. “The most important thing is not to make them from untreated cotton but from a breathable material that is at the same time water repellent,” she says.
“My masks are made from three layers. The middle one is a very delicate microfibre just like the one used for vacuum cleaner bags. This should somewhat filter the air. Besides, there is an inner pocket in which you can put regular handkerchiefs or tissues. They are easily changeable and they soak up the moisture in your breath.”
In the beginning, Frenyó produced masks for herself and her family and close friends but very soon she received more and more requests. Probably one reason for this are the photos she shared on social media, where she is seen wearing her masks. Unlike the usual bland masks, Frenyó’s have abstract patterns and are colourful: health protection as fashionable accessory.
Now the designer is producing over 100 masks daily and wants to continue until demand drops or she runs out of materials.
Fear of the invisible danger
The usefulness of these masks is disputed even among experts, and Frenyó emphasises that they cannot fully protect. “They are still better than no protection at all,” concludes Dr. Róbert Pázmándy, who explains that virus particles are not just flying freely through the air but are bound together in drops of saliva from sneezing or coughing.
“A physical barrier through a mask already means some degree of safety,” he says. “And besides, we are less tempted to directly touch our faces.” The young doctor works in the emergency room of a hospital in Hungary and regularly encounters suspected corona cases.
“We have a special examination room for checking possible patients. There are FFP3 masks in there and the general equipment you need for these cases.” Based on the symptoms and the general health of the patient, he has to decide who is stable enough to be sent to home-quarantine and who should be admitted to the isolation ward. The really bad cases go directly to the intensive-care unit.
“I felt very strong as long as I did not have to dress up myself to examine a possible COVID patient,” Pázmándy says. “Before the examination I had to sit down because it just hit me: this is serious. This person could have the virus and he could infect me as well. We are working very hard here every day as if nothing has happened but in reality all of us are very anxious.
“And the videos we see from Bergamo in Italy have a very strong effect on our souls. A frightening feeling creeps into all of us. Especially when you hear how healthcare workers get infected because of the lack of protective gear.”
What keeps Pázmándy and his colleagues going is the support they receive. “Every day we get some pizza or different kind of food sent in from some of our local restaurants. We have received many packages with coffee, sugar, fruits, chocolates and drinks. And we also got some masks that people made at home for us. We received many thank-you notes, which we hung up on a wall and in our dining room.”
However, he is especially thankful for the Hungarian people’s effort to take the regulations seriously and minimise the number of infected. “Of course, you can still see some pictures of people doing unnecessary things, but in general when I look outside I see empty streets. There is also barely any traffic when I am going to work. So I believe that most people are very disciplined, and this is something that we healthcare workers can be thankful for.”
Of course, nobody should stay without the necessary medical help. Pázmándy recommends that those people who have any questions or worries, instead of going to their doctor or the emergency room, should seek advice over the phone.