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Under the cloak of secrecy: Facts about the ravages of COVID-19 in Hungary

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Budapest, Hungary – Medián’s latest opinion poll on Hungarians’ satisfaction with the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic surprised many. Two findings in particular, published in the April 14 issue of HVG, were unexpected. One was the sharp contrast of views about the government’s performance, which fell solidly along party lines. The other, more stunning item was the widespread ignorance about the number of people who have died from COVID-19 in Hungary, which, as of today, is just shy of 25,000.

How is it possible that only 36% of the population was able to come up with an approximately accurate figure when Hungary currently has the third highest number of deaths per one million population (2,591) in the world and is quickly closing in on the top spot? (It has only to surpass the Czech Republic at 2,648 and Gibraltar at 2,791.)

COVID death toll in Hungary kept under cloak of silence

Endre Hann, the owner of Medián, bemoaned the lack of dissemination of information. In fact, although Hann didn’t make this claim, the government intentionally hides certain vital statistics, like the number of deaths, while stressing the success of the vaccination program.

After listening to a couple of joint daily performances given by one or two policemen and Cecília Müller, the chief medical officer, I’m actually surprised that the number of people who  knew about the number of fatalities is as high as 36%. In the first place, these daily information sessions are half-an-hour long, sometimes even longer. The routine is always the same. First comes an absolutely useless and exceedingly boring list of police actions against people who have violated the pandemic laws. I would guess that by the time the policeman finishes his 6-10-minute laundry list, 90% of the audience would have turned off their TVs. If, on the other hand, one is, like me, forced to listen to Cecília Müller’s repetitious 20-minute monologue, she will hear, almost exclusively, only positive news, even if there is mighty little to be upbeat about.

During these sessions there is no mention of the overall death toll. That data point is taboo. It is never mentioned in these “press conferences” or in government papers. That means that those 36% of the population who answered correctly learned about the figure from independent newspapers, the few which still exist, or internet news sites. They were the ones who made a special effort in an otherwise arid wasteland that the Hungarian media landscape has become during Viktor Orbán’s eleven years in power. They should be congratulated. Perhaps there is still hope that the general dumbing-down efforts of the government will be reversed in the near future. On the other hand, 37% of the population couldn’t come up with any figure whatsoever and an additional 15% were totally off base.

Hungary’s pandemic misinformation

Based on my experience of watching the daily “information sessions” orchestrated by the government, I can fairly confidently state that these exercises are good only for keeping up the population’s spirit and touting the government’s successful handling of the pandemic. The truth about the number of casualties and Hungary’s disastrous statistics, relatively speaking, is kept under a cloak of silence. This type of one-sided reporting is only too familiar to people who lived under one-party dictatorships. News, especially during the Rákosi regime and the earlier phases of the Kádár regime, was based on the same principle. For a while it worked reasonably well, until, in the case of Rákosi, it blew up in a spectacular way in 1956 and, in the case of Kádár, hung on for a few years.

The official messenger of this propaganda is Cecília Müller, who although she is called the chief medical officer of the land, is better suited to what she was before the pandemic hit: a kindly general practitioner in Nagyvenyim, population 4,000. Her monologues, which last about 20 minutes, are, as mentioned earlier, excruciatingly repetitious. In my estimate, the long-winded story could be delivered in 10 minutes, if I’m being generous.

A report on the number of people who died in the last 24 hours comes only 15 minutes into the presentation and is quickly followed up with reassuring information and helpful hints. In this case, she gave a long lecture about the safety of opening schools, even though she admitted that 31,000 teachers haven’t even received their first shots yet. And, she said, young kindergarten kids can be taught to use a handkerchief and children should take water bottles along.

“Morally unacceptable”

Since these “press conferences” have no audience, only written questions can be addressed to the chief medical officer, who decides whether or not to answer them. I assume that “difficult” questions are never answered. Yesterday’s only question came from RTL Klub, about the necessity of a third shot. I highly doubt that a straightforward question about the enormous loss of life would ever be answered.

And, in case one thinks that only Cecília Müller is glossing over uncomfortable facts, written government sources actually cover up the mortality rate. Two days ago, Magyar Nemzet proudly announced that “Hungary ranks only in the middle when it comes to the death rate of COVID-19 due to the difficulties encountered in comparing statistics.” And, instead of focusing on the home country, Magyar Nemzet reported on “the tragic mortality rate in Portugal and the Czech Republic.” In January, we were told that “despite the increase in the number of deaths from coronavirus in Hungary during the second wave of the epidemic, there was no significant spike in the number of deaths over the pandemic period as a whole. In contrast, Spain, the UK, and Belgium show a moderate increase in mortality, while Switzerland, France, Slovenia, Portugal, Sweden, and even Austria show a slight increase.”

Can anyone be surprised that only 36% of the population could quantify the horrendous mortality rate in Hungary? The references I have cited here are all from Magyar Nemzet. Multiply them by the number of government propaganda outlets, estimated to be close to 500. To my mind, misinforming the public or withholding information from them during a serious pandemic is morally unacceptable. It may even border on criminal negligence.

By the Hungarian Spectrum, a Kafkadesk partner.