As the British variant of the coronavirus is spreading at an alarming pace in Hungary, causing record numbers of infections and fatalities, Hungary is stepping up its vaccination program to stem the epidemic. The country surpassed the milestone of two million vaccinations, prompting the government to publish the conditions for starting the first stage of a multi-phase reopening.
Hungary is grappling with the most severe wave of the coronavirus epidemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people so far. The death rate has climbed at breakneck speed in recent weeks, giving Hungary one of the highest daily coronavirus related death rates in the world relative to its population. Eszter Sinkó, a healthcare economist, believes that a number of reasons lie behind the outstanding number of Covid-related casualties. Sinkó told news website Azonnali that the government's measures did not hold back the virus enough during the second wave. Additionally, the UK variant of the coronavirus was able to spread amid less stringent border restrictions, such as the absence of quarantine for people travelling to the country for economic reasons. The relatively poor health of Hungarians in general and the shortage of skilled staff in the healthcare system have also contributed to the outstanding mortality rate seen in the country.
Vaccination program stepped up
In response to the frightening spread of infections, the government has recently stepped up its inoculation program. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán repeatedly said that vaccinations are the only way to combat the epidemic and urged Hungarians to sign up to be vaccinated. Hungary is the only EU country to have five vaccines in use, with two additional vaccines approved for later use: AstraZeneca’s Covishield, manufactured in India, and China’s CanShino.
By the last week of March, more than 2 million Hungarians had received their first jabs and close to 800,000 people had been fully inoculated. Hungary ranks second on the EU vaccination list in terms of how many people have received at least the first dose. According to data published by the ECDC, Hungary has administered 354,879 AstraZeneca, 79,657 Moderna, and 1,098,712 Pfizer/BioNtech vaccines so far in addition to using 523,886 doses of Sinopharm and 213,178 of Sputnik V.
Plans for re-opening
Even though the third wave of the epidemic remains severe, Prime Minister Orbán said Hungary could start to gradually reopen as soon as 2.5 million people are vaccinated. The government announced the conditions for starting the first stage of a multi-phase reopening in Hungary in the official gazette Magyar Közlöny in late March.
The decree stipulates that the first stage of easing coronavirus restrictions can begin once 2.5 million people have received their first Covid-19 shot. Once this landmark is reached, the night curfew will begin at 10 pm instead of the current 8 pm. Shops will reopen but they must limit the number of customers to one person per 10 square meters, except for children under 14, people over 65, and those helping someone with a disability. Students may return to classrooms from April 19 and service providers will be allowed to resume operations but will have to adhere to restrictions that were in place until to March 8.
Health experts worried
Healthcare experts and doctors voiced their concerns regarding the government’s plan for re-opening. The Trade Union of Hungarian Doctors believes that the vaccination rate should reach at least 70% before restrictions are eased. The vice president of the organization said in a recent interview that Hungary should instead tighten restrictions and people should be more disciplined in observing the rules. Ernő Duda, a professor of virology at the University of Szeged, told news site 168.hu that at least 3.5 million people should be vaccinated for a “safe reopening.” The vaccination of 2.5 million people is only enough to significantly reduce the mortality rate. Béla Merkely, the rector of Semmelweis University in Budapest, set a higher bar, saying that vaccinating 2.5 million people is a “fine goal,” but for everyone to be “completely safe,” 5 million people must be inoculated.
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