Orbán predicts Hungary's hospitals will exceed capacity by mid-December, imposes new pandemic restrictions

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In a video posted to Facebook Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced the reinstatement of a state of emergency and the imposition of several pandemic-related measures as coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations rise rapidly in the country. The measures went into effect on Tuesday at midnight, five hours later.

The new restrictions include: 

  • a curfew between midnight and 5 a.m. (only those working or going to or from work may remain outside their homes during these hours)
  • attendees of events, sporting events, cinemas and theatres will be required to wear masks, and only every third chair may be occupied
  • clubs and concert halls with no assigned seating must remain closed, but pubs and event halls with seating may remain open
  • public transportation schedules will be expanded during peak travel hours, and free parking will go back into effect nationwide

In the announcement, Orbán said he'd asked the Parliament to approve extension of the state of emergency for 90 days, which would expand his executive powers to levels that caused controversy in spring. 

"It's time to put political debates aside. Now we need quick action and timely measures," he said. (Political debates on pandemic measures cannot affect the timeliness with which such measures are taken, since Fidesz's two-thirds parliamentary majority means the party can pass legislation whenever it desires - ed.)

Orbán referred to worsening pandemic conditions in Western Europe and neighboring Austria, a country the Hungarian government has referred to as its "laboratory" for developing its pandemic response, and said the pandemic in Hungary would reach Austrian levels in 5-7 days. If current trends continue, Hungary's hospitals will exceed their performance capacity by mid-December, Orbán predicted. (Orbán's claim that Austria is faring worse than Hungary is a distortion of the data: analysis of data beginning on August 20, representing the "second wave", shows that Hungary is performing substantially worse than its neighbor in nearly every category including hospitalizations, daily deaths and total deaths.)

The new restrictions are among the first to be imposed during the second wave of the pandemic (with the exception of bars and restaurants earlier being ordered to close at 11 p.m.). But they fall far short of measures already taken in most European countries, and neglect to address some of the most important factors impacting pandemic response, like ensuring adequate hospital staff, increasing testing, limiting social contacts and modifying education policy.

Police may issue fines of between 5,000-500,000 forints (€14-1,400) for infractions of the new regulations, and establishments that do not ensure compliance may also be fined or closed down. Police may also conduct compliance checks at restaurants, cinemas, concert halls and other establishments.

The new measures appear aimed at giving the impression of decisive action without meaningfully affecting the functioning of the economy or requiring major government investment. 

The midnight-5 a.m. curfew will likely do little to limit social contacts since nightlife establishments are already required to close at 11 p.m. Limiting maximum capacity to one-third at sporting events, cinemas and theatres comes after most European countries imposed similar measures months ago, and such establishments have been ordered closed in Austria, Czechia, Belgium, Germany and numerous other countries. While Orbán's announcement emphasized stricter protocols for mask wearing in bars and restaurants, many European nations have already limited such establishments to take-out only.

Orbán announced that doctors' salaries would be raised, and declared that healthcare workers have adequate equipment available to handle the rapidly rising number of hospitalized coronavirus patients. However, the Hungarian Chamber of Doctors (MOK) wrote last week that the capacity for testing and contact tracing is "no longer sufficient for tracking the spread of the pandemic", and called for the government to take immediate containment measures to slow its spread. MOK wrote that Hungary was "on the threshold of a healthcare crisis", and called on the government to cancel elective surgeries in hospitals to free up manpower for treating coronavirus patients.

A healthcare worker cares for a coronavirus patient in a hospital in Debrecen, October 2020.Fotó: Czeglédi Zsolt/MTI/MTVA

Finally, the new measures do not address increasingly worrisome conditions in the education system, where reports indicate that the virus is spreading uncontrolled among teachers, resulting in major staff shortages and even symptomatic teachers going in to work. The Democratic Union of Educators (PDSZ) wrote in a statement on Tuesday that the education system is "on the verge of collapse", but in contrast to many neighboring countries, all schools in Hungary remain open and digital education has not been ordered.

In closing his announcement, Orbán said "the ultimate solution is a vaccine, which is already within sight. We've got to hold on until it arrives." The prime minister earlier predicted that mass vaccination will not be available until at least April.

Sziijjártó tests positive for coronavirus in Asia, prompting quarantine of Cambodian officials

Hungary's Minister of Foreign Affairs tested positive for the coronavirus during an official trip to Asia, where he was often seen without a mask.

According to a ministry spokesman, Minister Péter Szijjártó tested positive after arriving in Bangkok, Thailand following a visit to Cambodia. In accordance with local rules, Szijjártó entered a hospital in Bangkok following the positive test, and was able to begin his journey to Budapest on Wednesday where he will enter quarantine. Szijjártó reportedly shows no symptoms, and tested negative just before leaving for Asia.

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó is welcomed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who later entered quarantineFotó: STR/AFP

At least 628 people that came into contact with Szijjártó during his visit to Cambodia were tested for the virus following his diagnosis, none of which have tested positive so far. The country of 16 million people has reported only 18 cases of the virus in the last two months, and has not registered a single death during the pandemic.

Several Cambodian government officials have gone into quarantine following their meetings with Szijjártó, including the country's prime minister Hun Sen, who announced he will enter quarantine for two weeks even after he produced a negative test.

In Thailand, where Szijjártó received his positive test, 45 cases of the coronavirus were detected in the past week. Szijjártó's was among the 6-7 daily cases of the virus detected in the country. 

Responding to observations that the foreign minister was often seen maskless during his trip, the foreign ministry wrote that Szijjártó "always behaved according to local regulations and the requests of his hosts concerning mask wearing and shaking hands."

Coronavirus update: pandemic claims more than 1,000 lives in three weeks

The number of daily coronavirus deaths in Hungary broke records five times in the last seven days, peaking on Wednesday at 90. Half of all deaths have occurred in the last three weeks, and 70 percent of deaths since September.

Daily coronavirus deaths and total coronavirus deaths

According to data from the Central Statistical Office (KSH), cancer was the leading cause of death in Hungary in 2019, killing an average of 87.7 people per day. Wednesday's record-setting 90 deaths exceeds that number, suggesting that the coronavirus could become the leading cause of death in Hungary as fatal cases are expected to continue rising. 

The number of hospitalizations also continues to rise dramatically as some hospitals reach full capacity and struggle with understaffing. On Thursday, 5,183 coronavirus patients were being treated in hospital, compared with 1,538 three weeks earlier. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán predicted on Tuesday that hospital capacity would be exceeded by mid-December, while data analysis by 444 concluded that capacity could be exceeded by the end of this month.

The proportion of positive coronavirus tests moved between 20-27 percent this week, well above the 5 percent recommended by the World Health Organization. Analysis of waste water in 22 cities shows increasing concentrations of the virus in the majority of those cities including Budapest and its suburbs.

8th District representative Lajos "Paci" Balogh dies of coronavirus at 28

Roma musician, activist and council member of Budapest's 8th District, Lajos "Paci" Balogh, died Monday after being hospitalized with the coronavirus. He was 28 years old. 

In a Facebook post on October 20, Balogh wrote that he had been admitted to a hospital in Budapest with the coronavirus. He closed his post writing, "Yes, COVID exists." Balogh's condition later worsened and he was placed on a ventilator.

Balogh was elected to the 8th District council as an opposition candidate in October 2019. He chaired the district's cultural and education commission, and was the district's counselor on the Roma and national minorities. 

A memorial to Lajos Balogh placed outside the 8th District headquarters in Budapest, November 3. Fotó: Justin Spike

On Monday, Chief Medical Officer Cecilia Müller told a press conference that Hungary is seeing "exponential increases" of the virus, and mentioned a 28-year-old victim which was later revealed to be Balogh. The man's death was one of a record-setting 70 registered on Monday, a record broken on Tuesday with 84 and again on Wednesday with 90. Diabetes was given as Balogh's underlying condition on the government's official coronavirus homepage.

Orbán raises alarm on terrorism after Vienna attacks

Following a series of armed attacks by a suspected Islamist radical in the Austrian capital of Vienna Monday night, the Hungarian prime minister said in a Facebook video Tuesday that Hungary would "do everything...to save Europe from the kinds of terror attacks we have suffered in recent days." 

Orbán expressed his condolences and solidarity with Austrians, and said, "We stand wholeheartedly behind Austria. Rest assured, dear [Austrian Chancellor] Sebastian [Kurz], that we will do everything in order to successfully deter and capture future perpetrators."

On Tuesday, Hungary's Counter-Terrorism Center dispatched armored vehicles to the Austrian-Hungarian border in case any perpetrators of the Vienna attack attempted to escape into Hungary. (It was believed at that time that more than one attacker was involved in the shootings.) Interior Ministry state secretary Károly Kontrát said in Parliament Tuesday that the Counter-Terrorism Center had increased border security following the attacks, and was working with Austrian officials in an investigation.

Orbán's message differed from that of anti-immigration hardliner Kurz, who in a statement emphasized that the attacks were not about conflicts between Christians and Muslims or Austria and immigrants, but between those who believe in peace and those who want war.

Four people including one police officer were killed in the shootings in Vienna, and 23 people were wounded. The gunman was killed by police.

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