Mária Vásárhelyi remembers Fidesz’s political games during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 – Hungarian Spectrum

by Kevin | Last Updated: April 15, 2020

A few days ago, Mária Vásárhelyi, a sociologist whose main field of interest is the media, wrote an excellent article in Élet és Irodalom titled “Deadly Game 2.0” in which she warns us against amnesia. She retells the story of the H1N1 pandemic in Hungary during which Fidesz, then still in opposition, did its very best to ruin the efforts of the Hungarian government to save the country from the rampaging virus.

I must admit that I had only vague recollections of the details of the epidemic although, at the time, I wrote two posts on the subject. In the first, written in October 2009, I described the reluctance of a majority of Hungarian doctors to use the vaccine developed by a Hungarian firm. In the second, published in December of the same year, I did a little investigation of my own into Ervin Demeter, a particularly unsavory Fidesz politician who got the task of discrediting Omninvest, the company that produced the vaccine.

Here are few more pieces of information about the timeline before we return to Vásárhelyi’s article. The H1N1 virus first appeared in Mexico in January 2009 and arrived in Europe in April 2009. On the political front in Hungary, on April 14 the second Gyurcsány government resigned and was replaced by a government led by Gordon Bajnai a couple of days later. There was, however, no personnel change in the ministry of health. Tamás Székely remained the minister. The chief medical officer was Ferenc Falus, who had been appointed to his post in 2007.

According to Vásárhelyi, Hungary was on top of the situation. On April 27, the ministry announced that Hungary was planning to produce its own vaccine and took steps to obtain the necessary virus strain, which arrived from the World Health Organization on May 28. The government entrusted Omninvest to manufacture the vaccine, which was tested on volunteers. As the result of the rapid response, Hungary was the first country to have a vaccine, a few months later.

The H1N1 pandemic arrived in Hungary on June 2, and by July 23 the country had its first fatality. It was at this point that Fidesz began its anti-government campaign, focused on what was better known as the swine flu. Initially, Fidesz politicians and their media accused the government of “sinful tardiness” and “incompetence” and accused members of the government of “going on summer vacations while people are going to die.” During the second stage, they charged the government with “miserliness for using a Hungarian product instead of spending money on a better quality vaccine.” A later WHO announcement, by the way, praised the Omninvest vaccine as one of the best in the world.

On July 27, the government announced that it had accepted plans worked out by Ferenc Falus and his co-workers at ÁNTSZ, the office in charge of public health and epidemiology, and had ordered six million doses of the vaccine, 60% of which was to be free to older people, children, and expectant mothers. Two million or so doses would be available in pharmacies for 1,930 forints, about $6 in 2009. In response, Fidesz held a press conference featuring Imre Pesti, a leading Fidesz politician with a medical degree who was chosen to lead the Fidesz troops into battle, and András Kupper, another Fidesz politician and a physician. They found the government measures that had just been announced “shocking” and “tragicomical.” The leaders of the country, he said, are playing for time to save money on vaccines.

Imre Pesti and András Kupper on a 2007 mission against the management of hospitals

By September the virus had spread rapidly, and in the second half of October there were 15,000 new patients infected with H1N1. At that point that Fidesz began its campaign against the manufacturer of the vaccine. The first attacks came from Magyar Nemzet where opinion pieces claimed that “Omninvest only wants to get rid of vaccines that they don’t know what to do with” and that “in vain does the minister vaccinate himself on TV … this vaccination is just a scam.” Fidesz politicians — Péter Szijjártó and Tibor Navracsics, for example — declared that “they didn’t get vaccinated and they have no intention of doing so in the future.” Newspapers claimed that “the cooling of the vaccine cannot be verified.” In addition, “there is a lack of elemental efficacy studies” while “fetal consequences will appear only in years.” Therefore “a decent GP does not administer this vaccine” to his patients.

By the end of October, the vaccine arrived in pharmacies, but there were no takers. The government’s program failed as a result of Fidesz’s anti-vaccine campaign. According to a Szonda-Ipsos poll, 78% of Fidesz voters decided against vaccination, including some members of the medical profession. The U.S. situation was very similar, by the way. A significant majority of Democratic Party voters were pro-vaccination; most Republicans were against it.

By November, it was clear that the situation was very serious. Every day there was news about another death, and therefore Fidesz and its media changed strategy. They stopped targeting the quality and safety of the vaccine and emphasized the impotence of the government. According to Imre Pesti, the government ruined everything that could be ruined, and they lied whenever they could. Szijjártó claimed that there wasn’t enough vaccine, even though the pharmacies were sitting on millions of unsold doses. He also claimed that the “government is experimenting on people and is incapable of defending the interests of the Hungarian people.”

Meanwhile, in view of the seriousness of the situation, one Fidesz politician after another got vaccinated, including the families of Viktor Orbán, László Kövér, and even Tibor Navracsics, who earlier had sworn that he would not be vaccinated. Antal Rogán, at this time still mayor of District V, opened a “vaccine center” in his district. István Mikola, a promising Fidesz politician and an MD who served as minister of health in the first Orbán government, publicly announced at the end of November that he had vaccinated his whole family because “the vaccine is excellent, the best in the world” and claimed that the only reason for people’s reluctance to be vaccinated is their “distrust of this government.” Vásárhelyi believes that it was that praise of the vaccine which ended István Mikola’s promising career in Fidesz. Mikola was Orbán’s “running mate” in the 2006 national election campaign, but in 2011 “he was exiled” as ambassador to France and since 2018 he is even farther away from Hungary, serving as ambassador to Australia.

By the end of December even Imre Pesti at a press conference asked everybody to get vaccinated in order to stop the spread of the virus. He claimed that the reason for the failure of the government’s vaccination campaign was its refusal to be open about many details regarding the vaccine.

Fidesz, by the way, never admitted that it had anything to do with the full-throated campaign against the vaccine. Imre Pesti, months after the events, announced that “Fidesz, as opposed to the socialists, has been in favor of the H1N1 vaccine and was for vaccination all along.”

At the end of her article, Vásárhelyi remarks that, in the light of the above, it was the “triumph of common sense over populism that, by the end of the year, Hungary was the third best vaccinated country in Europe.” Fidesz’s behavior today is not very different from its conduct in 2009. They are trying to shift the blame to their opponents, accusing them of a lack of cooperation. But, as Vásárhelyi points out, Viktor Orbán and his party cannot behave for long as if they were in opposition. They are in charge this time around. “Sooner or later they will be forced to take up the fight against the real enemy.”

April 14, 2020