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The politics of panic: coronavirus in Central Europe

Budapest, Hungary – In early February, two people were arrested in Hungary, charged with spreading fake news and fueling panic about the spread of coronavirus, or Covid-19, in the country. They had claimed that a woman had collapsed and died in Budapest due to the illness.

On February 26, Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini was hospitalized, with rumours falsely circulating that his respiratory infection was a case of coronavirus.

As the virus, still not entirely understood by scientists, continues to spread across Europe, fake news reports have perpetuated global panic about the speed of its spread and its mortality rate. Much of the fake news has thus far not been quite as realistic as the Hungarian example: internet conspiracists have blamed Coronavirus on everything from 5G networks to the accidental release of a Chinese bio-weapon. 

Coronavirus is taking over the political agenda

Although fake news has been a theme of the coronavirus outbreak, from the perspective of politics, a similarly concerning trend is right-wing and semi-authoritarian governments across Eastern and Central Europe capitalizing on the virus to further their political talking points.

In Hungary, as of March 3, 18 people were in quarantine after visiting northern Italy and Prime Minister Viktor Orban has highlighted the likelihood of coronavirus reaching Hungary. However, in a recent interview with Hungary’s Kossuth Radio, Orban was at pains to stick to his political agenda.

He railed against migration, comparing the short-term issues with coronavirus to the “historic trend” of migration. Similar views have been espoused by Italy far-right leader Matteo Salvini, who linked Italy’s acceptance of refugees to the significant outbreak of Covid-19 in the country. panic coronavirus

Viktor Orban has highlighted the likelihood of coronavirus reaching Hungary. Credit: FSSPX.NEWS

Despite the parroting of these messages, coronavirus is taking over the political agenda. Public health policy and protocols are under focus. In the UK, the government was heavily criticised by commentators and families of coronavirus sufferers for its slow reaction to evacuating Brits out of China.

Many governments, including those of Poland and Hungary, have attempted to calm their populations by reiterating that they are well-prepared for an outbreak despite, at the time of writing, no cases being confirmed in either country. Reassurance, just as much as outlining hygiene measures, appears to be a core part of dealing with coronavirus.

It is likely that as the virus spreads, inter-state cooperation is going to be critical to limiting the duration of the outbreak. It will also mean more coordination with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to report cases and fatalities. panic coronavirus

During outbreaks reliable information is critical, thus any muddying of the waters by bad actors online can cost lives and waste time. As a result, against their will, the right-wing, nationalist governments of, for instance, Poland and Hungary will have to play by international rules while the battle against coronavirus reaches new fronts.

Coronavirus-linked panic and Central Europe’s economies

As long as stock markets plummet, supply chain disruptions continue and normal government function is hampered by the virus, the world economy will suffer and in turn, governments will be under pressure to calm the widespread panic. A New York Times report recently highlighted significant possible damage to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland’s manufacturing exports to Germany and analysts now point to the potential for a broader economic downturn in Europe. panic coronavirus

Just as many ordinary citizens are panicking, so too is the financial world: London’s stock market suffered its biggest fall since the financial crisis in 2008 on the 28th February. Any extended economic contraction caused by coronavirus-linked fear is likely to hit Central and Eastern Europe’s economies hard and may spill over to the political arena by increasing discontent and giving opposition groups reasons to attack governments. 

The political impact of coronavirus can only be effectively judged after the initial wave of cases passes. The perception of how a given country’s authorities have reacted to the crisis will determine whether the outbreak has any lasting political consequences. In the short run, it is imperative that governments and health ministries share information. That said, elements of the epidemic will be used by Europe’s right-wingers to demonise groups and push an agenda.

The irony is, epidemics don’t respect the borders many of them wish to close, and building walls will not stop their spread. As mass travel and mass movement necessitated by the extent of economic connectedness across the developed world, attempts at isolationism will cure nothing. If anything, efficient information flows and cross-border pooling of scientific resources and cooperation are some of our best weapons against coronavirus.

Orban and his allies on the right of European politics should do well to remember that.

By Avram Liebenau

Avram was a political risk analyst at a consultancy company in London and did a degree in Russian and History at UCL with a focus in Russian and Eastern European economic history. Check out his latest articles right here!

Photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid