Sunday

20th Sep 2020

Feature

How Hungary's Orban blamed migrants for coronavirus

  • As the first corona patient was reported, Viktor Orban's government quickly resorted to its anti-migration ploys. The first patent seemed to be an Iranian student – studying legally in Hungary - so "migration is responsible for the spread of epidemic" (Photo: European commission)

It feels like a lazy Sunday morning in August. Streets are deserted in Budapest; public transport runs with a handful of passengers. Children and dogs are playing in parks. Just some homeless people hang around in groups, smoking and chatting undisturbed.

People look suspiciously at each other and practice "social distancing": no handshakes or kisses. Surprisingly disciplined, they are queueing up in front of the pharmacies, where only as many people can enter as there are counters.

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Shops are half empty, there is a frenzy of piling up food or anything you can get. At a local food store, a woman in front of me stores up 10kg of turkey breast in her trolley, I have to ask her to leave one piece for me.

She gives me an offended look. There is a sign at the door asking customers not to buy in "industrial quantities", but apparently nobody cares.

I haven't seen empty shelves in a food stores even during the times of the socialism, now it feels like a psychological experiment.

Do we really need 10kg of flour, five kg of rice and six litres of oil? Hundred rolls of toilet papers and a dozen cans of mustard?

Paraphrasing the Darwinian expression, it is not the survival of the fittest but the fastest. Or the fattest.

From today on, soldiers will take over strategic companies and patrol the streets, but everybody wonders about their real goals. Should we prepare for a curfew, like in Serbia?

Or is this just part of a communication strategy, transmitting an impression that "the government keeps the situation under control"?

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is no doubt a master of crisis communication.

He has been tirelessly alarming the society of a migration crisis in the last five years. Just at the beginning of March, he extended the "crisis due to mass migration" for the eighth time since 2015, without any substantial migratory pressure on the borders.

But now he has a real crisis at hand.

Migrant scapegoat

Old routines die hard. As the first corona patient was reported, the government quickly fell back to its anti-migration communication scheme. The first patent happened to be an Iranian student – studying legally in Hungary - so it became evident that "migration is responsible for the spread of epidemic".

Since then, it has in fact been confirmed that first case in Hungary was of a Hungarian woman, who caught the virus probably in Italy.

Nevertheless, the government ordered 13 Iranian students into custody ready to be deported from the country – allegedly, some of them misbehaved in the quarantine in the hospital, threw chairs at the medical personnel and wanted to leave the building.

The students later said the hygienic circumstances were terrible and the medical personal did not share any information with them regarding their condition and those being in the same room with them.

Following up on the communication offensive, the Hungarian government appointed an Operation Corps which informs the public every day about the current developments of the corona virus and the measures taken.

But many journalists complain that the information is incomplete and there is a feeling that the government conceals some key data.

According to a recent opinion poll of Median, the majority of the public trust the government, although there is a lot of speculation whether the number of COVID-19 patients (73, as of Thursday 19 March) reported by the government are accurate.

Erratic measures

Officially, only one person died so far from coronavirus related pneumonia, but the major preparations the government announced – vacating hospital buildings and the building of container hospitals for possible patients – indicate that they are preparing for a major outbreak.

It is still unclear whether the somewhat erratic measures taken so far are enough to slow down the epidemic.

Hungary first only reintroduced checks at the Schengen borders but as of Tuesday (17 March), closed down the borders to passenger traffic and - after some uncertainty - the Ferihegy International airport as well.

On Wednesday, a 50km queue was reported at the Austrian-Hungarian border, indicating that the suspension of free circulation of goods could be even more painful than the restrictions on free movement.

Orbán and his foreign minister, Peter Szijjártó, declared several times that borders should remain open to trucks transporting goods and production should not come to a halt.

Closures and recession

But key factories – Audi, Mercedes, Opel and Suzuki – closed down within a day.

Finance minister Mihály Varga already talked about a possible economic recession of 0.3 percent, which is a huge drop from the 4.9 percent GDP growth last year.

Unemployment will surge, as some sectors will soon hit rock bottom.

As a sign of mismanagement, last Friday (13 March), the prime minister said in his usual radio interview that there was no reason to suspend teaching in Hungarian schools, and even threatened teachers that if that happened, they would not be paid.

Public uproar was immense and it even convinced Orbán's Fidesz party, which – in an unseen union with all opposition parties – pleaded him to change his mind.

In less than 12 hours, Orbán announced the closure for all schools in the country and the start of "digital teaching".

Evidently, most schools and teachers haven't been prepared for an abrupt shift from the usual frontal teaching methods into the technology of the 21st century, but surprisingly, a lot of creativity emerged.

After the first two days of chaotic preparations, from Wednesday on, most children get materials via Skype, Google classroom, or in emails and spend most of their mornings studying at home – under their parents' supervision, which makes teleworking somewhat less productive than expected.

As experts already warned, this can lead to the much-needed transformation of Hungarian education, but the vast regional and financial difference in Hungarian education will now further deepen.

Although internet penetration is high even in the countryside, many families, especially with more children will not have the possibility to provide laptops for each child to work on.

But the good news is, shops selling and servicing computers, laptops and tablets enjoy a real bonanza, as home office and digital schooling require updated IT facilities. IT will surely emerge as a winner of the crisis.

The government is engaged in a two-front struggle: slowing down the epidemic and keeping the economy afloat.

If either of them succeeded, it would be a huge success.

Author bio

Edit Inotai was a journalist and foreign editor at Nepszabadsag, a Hungarian daily, until 2014. She now works for German public TV ARD, Balkan Insight, and is a senior fellow of the Budapest-based think tank CEID.

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