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Coronavirus: Where is Hungary in European Comparison?

Péter Cseresnyés 2020.04.09.

Everywhere in the world, many people wonder, how the spread of the coronavirus epidemic and the measures taken in each country against it stacks up. It is no different in Hungary. For the time being, based on the available data, it seems that the situation in the country is relatively good: not only compared to the most severely affected, but also to neighboring countries. Of course, it is also important to note that the available data is limited and many factors distort their reliability and the ability to compare.

According to wordometer.org, the Central European region, as of now, is hit less by the coronavirus pandemic than the Western side of the continent.

Fact

The fact that Western Europe is more affected is rooted in some other factors: the higher international traffic in those countries; more tourists; higher number of big and populous cities in Western Europe; top football leagues in the most affected countries (i.e. Italy, Spain, Germany, England, France) with plenty of matches with high attendance, etc. In addition, CEE countries, including Hungary, were relatively quick to react regarding restricting measures. (If we count the days that have passed since the first registered infection in those countries). However, the pandemic reached Italy and Western Europe first - they were hit by the novel coronavirus like a storm and it took a while until they found out what to do and which protocols to introduce. The CEE region was luckier as it had more weeks to prepare and had known measures to choose from. On the other hand, Western European countries have better public health care systems and are wealthier which could result in an overall better state of health for their citizens. So it is really hard to state which countries battled the new coronavirus better, and which worse.

In our region, Hungary had one of the fewest confirmed coronavirus cases among the neighboring countries [based on Wednesday’s data].

Fact

Total confirmed cases per million citizens:

Austria: 1,419

Czech Republic: 470

Poland: 132

Romania: 247

Slovenia: 525

Croatia: 312

Serbia: 280

Slovakia: 106

Hungary: 93

Ukraine: 38

If we take a look at the data of the total confirmed cases to a country’s total population (cases per million), we can also see that only Ukraine has more favorable data, while in Slovakia, for example, this indicator is very similar to the Hungarian one. In Austria, on the other hand, the number of confirmed cases has risen to over 12,000, which means 1,400 cases per million people.

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So, according to the data described above, Hungary is doing well; however, there are some important factors, and without those, the numbers listed above cannot be reliably interpreted.

Everyone who is trying to compare the data of each and every country to find out how the epidemic statistics stack up against the other, needs to remember an important thing: nations have different reporting standards, different methods for testing, making such comparisons extremely misleading.

First and foremost, the number of confirmed cases are only a fraction of all those infected, as many carry the disease asymptomatically or with mild symptoms without visiting a doctor. The Hungarian government has also emphasized in the past weeks that the actual number of people infected with the Sars CoV-2 could be 10 to 15 times the official data.

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There are also lots of variables in how numbers are being gathered and reported. One of the key factors is the number of tests conducted. All across the world, we can see that different countries widely range in their ability and willingness to test potential coronavirus cases.

So that means the number of cases can be closer or further from an accurate count of how many people actually have the virus. Hence, the more people that are tested in a country, the more reliable the data will be on how far the virus has spread. It is well-known that the number of those tested are low in Hungary in international comparison due to various factors. (Not to mention that while other countries publish the number of people tested, Hungary publishes the number of samples taken, which results in very different data as every patient suspected of coronavirus needs a bare minimum of two tests).

Having this information can help the healthcare service plan for extra demand, and can also inform decisions around social distancing measures.

During his regular press briefing on Saturday, PMO Head Gergely Gulyás said that the number of tests performed in Hungary had increased radically, as it was well under ten thousand two weeks ago, but by the weekend it had reached twenty thousand.

However, the Minister also highlighted that rapid tests are not included in the official test numbers because, according to Gulyás, their accuracy is only 80%. In addition, private coronavirus tests are not included either.

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Meanwhile, many press reports have suggested that although official data in terms of the number of cases and their growth rate seems promising, in terms of mortality data, the figures are actually worrisome.

According to the latest Wednesday data, so far 58 people with chronic diseases have lost their lives in Hungary in connection with the coronavirus.

But the figures do not tell us a lot of things about the death toll. The novel coronavirus could be the major cause, a contributing factor, or simply present when people are dying of something else. In other words, dying with the disease is not the same as dying from the disease. It differs from country to country how they label the cause of death. For example, in Italy, everyone who dies infected with coronavirus is registered as a coronavirus victim. In other countries, for example, in Germany,  the patient’s primary, chronic illness is often registered as the cause of death.

Sampling bias is another distorting effect. The available tests are usually reserved for the sickest and riskiest cases in Hungary. This way, the fatality rate is raised as the tests will overrepresent those who are more likely to die and underrepresent asymptomatic or mild cases. Meanwhile, in other countries with more tests performed, they find more people infected by coronavirus but feeling relatively well. So their statistical death rate will look better.

In the absence of widespread testing, comparing the number of Covid-19 deaths to a country’s total population might indicate the status closer to the truth.

In response to a question about the coronavirus death rate in Hungary, Chief Medical Officer Cecília Müller also highlighted that domestic figures and statistics from other countries were not comparable. She added, however, that the ratio of victims in the whole Hungarian population puts the country “in the lower third” compared to other countries.

Researchers at Our World in Data have created a chart using official data from around the world with the total number of confirmed deaths per population. It approves the medical officers’ stance about Hungary being in the lower third in regards to the mortality rate.

Featured photo by János Vajda/MTI 

 


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