The coronavirus pandemic is still the focus of everyone’s attention, including the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. However, since the operative staff decided to celebrate Easter, there is not much news on that front. I therefore decided to write about Dr. Miklós Kásler’s role and status as the health crisis has unfolded.
Kásler, the former head of the National Oncological Institute, became minister of human resources in the fourth Orbán government on May 18, 2018. The medical community as well as the public were happy to hear that Viktor Orbán’s mega-ministry, after six years of The Reverend Zoltán Balog’s tenure, would have a medical man at the helm. After all, Hungarian healthcare was and still is under-financed, understaffed, and altogether in terrible shape.
It didn’t take long for warnings to come from medical professionals familiar with Kásler’s background that expectations of a better future for Hungarian healthcare were misplaced. And people who are familiar with cultural matters were distraught over Dr. Kásler’s interest in revisionist interpretations of early Hungarian history and his total unfamiliarity with such basic concepts as linguistic and ethnic relations. He struck me as a dilettante who spent most of his time writing books on history and participating in a TV series that promoted his unscientific view of history.
Barely three weeks went by after his swearing-in ceremony before “heads began to roll” around the new minister. The firings were often done in a totally unacceptable manner. In several cases, the dismissed officials learned about their fate from the media. In June 2018, Népszava described Kásler’s purge as “an epidemic that swept through the healthcare section of the ministry, in which there are hardly any middle managers who have not been dismissed or who are not expecting to be sacked.” As we will see, Kásler’s penchant for firing health professionals has not diminished. Even the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t restrained him from making personnel changes, even though the situation would dictate continuity. Critics claim that these massive personnel changes will have a very negative effect on the functioning of the ministry and predict it will take a year before the new people, hired from outside of government circles, will find their way around.
After Kásler swept the ministry clean, he began to fire physicians in various hospitals. By December 2018, several well-known and respected physicians got the ax, among them László Székely, a cardiac surgeon, who was followed by seven of his colleagues in protest. Soon after Domonkos Imreh in the Szent Margit Kórház was sent into forced retirement, eight of his fellow surgeons left the hospital. Many suspected that these dismissals were inspired by political considerations. In any case, Dr. Imreh’s departure from the Saint Margit Hospital, after 38 years of service, seemed egregious by most acceptable standards, especially since he had been a member of the team that performed the separation of Bangladeshi twins who had been born conjoined at their heads.
By that time, the opposition openly demanded Kásler’s dismissal. But, although I suspect that even Orbán realized that he had made a dreadful mistake, he wasn’t going to oblige, even though the medical dismissals were not the only problems. Within the ministry, Kásler was spending incredible amounts of money on his wacky ideas about history and Hun-Hungarian relations. Kásler’s incompetence was becoming more obvious by the day, but instead of getting rid of him, Orbán merely relieved him of all sorts of responsibilities that his ministry was originally meant to handle. Many of his earlier duties were shifted to Orbán’s new favorite, László Palkovics.
It might seem obvious that the minister of human resources should be in charge of managing the coronavirus pandemic, but the government offered instead an enlarged “operative staff,” which included Viktor Orbán, Sándor Pintér, Miklós Kásler, Cecília Müller, and assorted officials. Their very first press conference turned into a horror show, giving the impression that there was huge confusion and ignorance within the government about the current state of affairs as well as about the tasks that lay ahead. The most confused and ignorant seemed to be Miklós Kásler.
Naturally, severe criticism from the opposition followed. Gergely Arató, deputy whip of DK, gave a press conference in which he announced that DK will formally demand Kásler’s expulsion from the operative staff. He insisted that Kásler’s appearances will only increase the panic because he seems to have no answers whatsoever to questions addressed to him. “What we heard was not information but the creation of panic since the minister’s spectacular incompetence can rightly cause concern in people. In our opinion, the successful operation of the Operative Staff will be endangered if Miklós Kásler continues to be included in it,” Arató insisted.
Jobbik went even further. László György Lukács, deputy chairman of the party, announced in parliament that, after his performance at the first press conference of the operative staff, it was evident that Kásler is not fit to be in charge of Hungarian healthcare. “How is it that someone who is responsible for healthcare at the beginning of a pandemic is unable to answer the simplest questions?” he asked. Magyar Hang, which carried the news, added that in their opinion the minister “had no idea of how a press conference should be handled; he could not give any meaningful answers to the journalists’ questions. He was quite capable of contradicting Semmelweis University, members of the operative staff, and himself within one single sentence.”
Kásler was duly removed from the operative staff, presumably because the prime minister realized what a dud he had on his hands as the public face of healthcare. But the minister is still busy behind the scenes. I have no idea whose idea it was to free 60% of all hospital beds for severe coronavirus cases. Instead of creating temporary facilities with new beds, either Kásler or Viktor Orbán thought that the best solution to a possible upsurge in cases was to kick out patients who currently need hospital care. In the Ferenc Jahn Hospital, for instance, relatives of a patient were informed that if they don’t pick up the very sick cancer patient, the staff will just pack her up and deliver her home. And when Péter Cserháti, the director of the Országos Orvosi Rehabilitációs Intézet, resisted the order to free 200 beds, Kásler fired him. The staff was so outraged that they held a spontaneous demonstration during which they applauded the director and sang an old Hungarian favorite by the Illés Ensemble, famous in the 60s and 70s. The title of the song is “Why did we allow this to happen?”
István Csernavölgyi, the director of the Szent György University Hospital of Fejér County, apparently the busiest hospital in the country, was fired for a different reason. It was “a very serious oversight” that ended his highly successful career. It turned out that whoever was responsible for transmitting data electronically failed to report to the ministry one day. However, as the director explained, the ministry was aware of the correct numbers because the hospital’s daily telephone transmission of data was on time. If I understand it correctly, Csernavölgyi is not taking his ousting lying down.
It often happens that the least competent persons demand extraordinary performance from others. They are also the ones to fire their subordinates whom they blame for their own failures. Kásler is a perfect example of the type. He is considered to be a puppet of Viktor Orbán, and perhaps it is for this reason that he throws his weight around to show that he is a man of independent action.
As a footnote, we can compare the situation in the Hungarian ministry of human resources with that of the U.S. White House. An article detailing the timeline of the pandemic and the U.S. response noted that on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, the joint Obama-Trump transition teams ran an exercise for pandemic preparedness.“Trump administration attendees included: Steven Mnuchin, Rep. Mike Pompeo, Wilbur Ross, Betsy DeVos, Dr. Ben Carson, Elaine Chao, Stephen Miller, Marc Short, Reince Priebus (resigned), Rex Tillerson (fired), Gen. James Mattis (fired), Rep. Ryan Zinke (resigned), Sen. Jeff Sessions (resigned), Sen. Dan Coats (fired), Andrew Puzder (not confirmed), Dr. Tom Price (resigned), Gov. Rick Perry (resigned), Dr. David Shulkin (fired), Gen. John Kelly (resigned), Rep. Mick Mulvaney [resigned?], Linda McMahon (resigned), Sean Spicer (fired), Joe Hagin (resigned), Joshua Pitcock (resigned), Tom Bossert (fired), KT McFarland (resigned), Gen. Michael Flynn (awaiting criminal sentencing), Gary Cohn (resigned), Katie Walsh (resigned), and Rick Dearborn (resigned).” Enough said.