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Analyses Show that Despite Closures Hungarians Did Not Stay Home

Márton Jász 2021.03.16.

The third wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Hungary has been officially going on for three weeks, and the government also announced new restrictions effective from March 8th. However, based on two different analyses, which follow the monitoring of population movement at the national level using data from mobile devices, it can be concluded that the population of Hungary did not stay at home despite closures. 

While decision-makers regularly use data of the movement density of the Hungarian population in order to control the coronavirus epidemic, a Hungarian scientific project – led by former health state secretary Miklós Szócska, Dean of the Faculty of Public Health at Semmelweis University, and Professor Martin McKee – has received prestigious national and international recognition.

The research group has developed a methodology for monitoring the movement of the population together with three major mobile service providers, an accurate tool for the government to assess the impact of each restrictive measure.

It is important to note that the system is completely unsuitable for personal identification, which is ensured by the inclusion of several important factors. Thus, the research team and decision-makers do not come close to data, for example, about how a certain customer or his family members move around in the country.

Miklós Szócska, the head of the research group on data use and digital health of the epidemiological modeling working group, also revealed how the Hungarian population reacted to the restrictive measures in March on the basis of the mobility and stay-at-home indicators they developed.

Excerpt from the study published in the Scientific Report. Source: Portfolio.hu

According to Szócska, many people still stay at home during the weekdays, especially in the capital and in smaller settlements, but in general, people move around more and more in settlements with a population larger than 25,000. According to their data, by the beginning of March, people had run out of patience.

“The weekend before the new restrictive measures came into force on March 8th, there was a nationwide movement like there was no epidemic at all, and which consequently caused the virus to spread. It was clear that unfortunately, people are getting fed up with the pandemic and the package of restrictions would not be enough for the faster-spreading variant,”  Szócska said.

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According to another analysis directed by liberal 444’s scientific side page Qubit, which is based on a methodology provided by Facebook and Google, the weekend movements of Hungarians can be examined compared with data from a week earlier.

The data from Google is based on movement trends over time by geography, across different categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential areas.

Whereas the data from Facebook uses two metrics, ‘Change in Movement’ and ‘Stay Put,’ which provide a slightly different perspective on movement trends. ‘Change in Movement’ looks at how much people are moving around and compares it with a baseline period that pre-dates most social distancing measures, while ‘Stay Put’ looks at the fraction of the population that appears to stay within a small area during an entire day. Both data sets aim to provide insights into population movement and how it changes in response to policies aimed at combating COVID-19; however, both emphasize that adhering to strict privacy protocols is the number one priority.

Based on these insights, there was a tendency for the majority of Hungarians to leave their homes before Christmas, presumably due to holiday preparations. Subsequently, a downward trend was observed in the movement, and then in January the country returned to normal after the holidays. From January onwards, only a minimal fluctuation could be observed in the movement; however, according to Google’s indicators, towards the end of last week, after the announcement of the closures (but before Monday’s implementation) the turnover at grocery stores, pharmacies, and restaurants continued to increase compared to a week earlier, with more people leaving their homes to visit these places.

These trends in movement can be certainly worrying, considering that the rise in infections is still severe in the country and the number of coronavirus-related deaths are increasing as well. Medical experts also warn that if numbers continue to deteriorate at this pace, the question of reopening the country can be significantly delayed.

Featured photo illustration by Zsolt Czeglédi/MTI