With the number of daily coronavirus infections reaching record highs, it is no longer a question whether Hungary is now in the midst of the second wave of the coronavirus epidemic. Although the border closure was a drastic step, it is evident that the government is working to avoid strict measures in order to shield the economy. The key question of the second wave is whether selective restrictions will suffice.
Béla Merkely, president of the Semmelweis Medical University of Budapest and a respected authority on the coronavirus epidemic, urged policy makers this week to re-introduce the strict measures implemented in the spring in order to curb the spread of infections. The expert would launch state screening for people in high-risk positions (including teachers), bring back the special shopping time for the elderly, ban parties at night and make masks mandatory indoors. He is not alone in his view; several other experts share the same opinion. The government’s reaction to Merkely’s statement, namely that he did not represent the Cabinet’s official position when speaking about the measures, is rather telling. It signals that despite the somewhat ambiguous closure of Hungary’s borders (which the European Union opposed), the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is reluctant to re-launch comprehensive and severe restrictions at the national level, in order to avoid a partial shutdown of the economy. Instead, it seems policy makers are in favor of selective restrictions concerning specific areas.
It’s all about the economy
After Hungary registered one of the steepest GDP declines in the EU in the second quarter, it appears that the government's main objective is to curb economic and social damage as much as possible. The statements of government officials underpin this ambition. On 2 September, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó stressed that the partial shutdown of the Hungarian economy should be prevented at all costs during the second wave of the coronavirus epidemic, and one of the best tools to achieve this was a series of selective restrictive measures. In subsequent statements, the minister noted that a renewed shutdown of the economy would have dramatic consequences for the country and added that production would not decline due to the second wave. On 8 September, László György, State Secretary for Economic Strategy and Regulation at the Ministry of Innovation and Technology, stated that "all the tools and solutions are at our disposal so that we do not have to close the economy in the same way as in the spring". He did not elaborate on specific solutions or measures.
Even though country-level limitations are few and far in between, no one should think that the government has given up on fighting the spread of the epidemic. Instead, the Cabinet is introducing measures that selectively target certain areas of the country and specific issues, and is doing so without much publicity.
In early September, several hospitals and nursing homes in Budapest and the countryside were closed to visitors. Experts are focusing on measurements of the coronavirus hereditary material in municipal wastewater samples, as an increase in its concentration foreshadows the intensification of the epidemic 4-10 days in advance. Seven large cities were identified on 1 September, including Miskolc, where a few days later local restrictions were imposed on institutions, customer services and public transport.
In public education, the government is deploying a selective protective strategy as well. The detailed epidemiological protocol issued by education authorities notes that each institution has the right to make an individual decision if the virus is detected among students or staff. This allows schools to switch to online education temporarily, if needed, and the decision can be made at local level. That is a far cry from the closure of all educational institutions seen in the spring.
The Ministry for Innovation and Technology issued a 40-page practical guide to domestic companies, detailing the measures that can be introduced to reduce the risk of infections and keep their businesses running.
Will it be enough?
Medical experts warn that the second wave of the epidemic may be more severe than the first. The Virology Research Group of the University of Pécs issued a statement saying that the number of infected persons needing hospital care quadrupled within 2 weeks. This means that the burden on the health care system is set to increase exponentially over the coming weeks and months, according to the statement. The researchers cautioned that the situation could change dramatically in a few weeks and stressed that while in the first week of August the number of active cases was only around 540, now it is almost 10 times higher. Between 2 and 4 August, there were only 9 new infections registered a day in Hungary, the average for the last seven days is 471.
Although some of the selective restrictions urged by medical experts are being introduced (currently at local and not national level), infection data paints a bleak picture for the short term. The crucial question of the coming weeks and months will be whether this selective approach – applied to shield the economy - will suffice to stem the second wave of the epidemic.
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