Hungary’s hospitals are struggling under the pandemic, but their difficulties cannot be shared with the public. The government has ensured that independent media cannot provide on-site coverage of Covid-wards. Even state and pro-government media have only been allowed to report from specific hospital locations. This “guarding of information” (or censorship, according to critics) may help in avoiding panic, but is leading to people ignoring the severity of the pandemic and adding to its impact.
Aside from keeping away the media, the Hungarian government has also shared minimal information about the pandemic. Officials have denied statistics and downplayed the magnitude of the issue.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has entrusted the coordination of defense against the pandemic to Minister of the Interior Sándor Pintér, a former police officer, under whom Hungarian Hospitals have been essentially locked away from the public.
Hungary’s Hospitals: “Super Secret Military Bases”
Independent media are not allowed to enter, and only state-owned media have been allowed in a few times to provide selective coverage from certain hospitals. Liberal Hvg.hu refers to hospitals as “super-secret military bases,” from which no information can be shared. Regardless of how bad the situation is in these hospitals, the public cannot know.
Minister Pintér has been stereotypically known as the one who knows everything about everyone, and his assignment to the role could be a warning to hospital workers not to step out of line.
This is further made evident by his creation of the National Protective Service’s (NVSZ) Department of Protection for Health Service Providers in January, according to HVG. While the purpose of this institution is to stop doctors from bribery, it also gives NVSZ increased jurisdiction and surveillance over healthcare workers.
János Bélteczki, head of Pál Almási Balogh Hospital in Ózd, has described Hungary’s Covid-wards on the same level as those in the Italian city of Bergamo, notorious for hundreds of coronavirus related deaths in the first wave of the pandemic.
“Try imagining Ózd’s hospital in the same condition as the situation we saw Italy in. This is what we live day in and day out, and it is a brutal burden on workers both physically and mentally.”
Hungary’s National Healthcare Service Center stated that Bélteczki’s comparison of the Ózd hospital to Bergamo is a lie, since, according to them, the hospital is not over capacity.
Minister of Human Resources Miklós Kásler also believes Hungary’s healthcare system is perfectly fine, and that it has not, as opposition parties put it, “fallen apart.”
In a Sunday interview on the Bayer Show, Kásler said Hungarian healthcare is among the best in Europe, and that while death related statistics are high, they are still among the most well-off in the world. Kásler believes that it will only be possible to measure how well each country performed at the end of the pandemic.
Independent Media’s Open Letter to Gov’t
28 of Hungary’s independent news outlets, including 24.hu, 444, Azonnali, Hvg.hu, Magyar Hang, Népszava, RTL News, Telex, and Válasz Online, sent a letter to the Orbán government calling for change.
The letter states that journalists have been allowed to show coverage on Covid units in other countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Ireland, Germany, Romania, Slovakia, China, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Australia.
Unlike these countries, journalists have only been able to provide coverage in two Hungarian hospitals; one in Székelyudvarhely (in Romania) and one in Dunaszerdahely (in Slovakia).
Their letter emphasizes the negative impact this censorship has on the Hungarian public, and calls on the government to:
- Allow journalists and media to enter the Covid-wards of Hungary’s hospitals and vaccination points, but only if they respect the dignity of healthcare workers and their patients.
- Allow healthcare workers to openly share the reality hospitals face with the public. Let doctors and nurses speak without anonymity.
- Provide the media with accurate information 24/7, since this is currently not happening. A separate group should be formed at the operative board and at the National Public Health Center (NNK) for the detailed briefing of the media. The operative board’s press conferences should be held in the presence of journalists.
Government Official: Media Presence Not Needed
Secretary of state responsible for international communications Zoltán Kovács reacted to the letter on Facebook, saying Hungary’s hospitals should be places of treatment, not cinematography:
The operative board is sharing the reality of the situation every day. Despite this, left wing parties are spreading fake news for the degradation of Hungarian healthcare. Hungary’s hospitals, along with the doctors and nurses operating them, are performing exceptionally well. Let them work!”
However, Hungary’s operative board, unlike other countries, chooses not to share key information with the Hungarian public which would help give a much clearer picture of the pandemic.
It has excluded hospital statistics about the pandemic, it has only shared the number of people being treated in intensive care units four times, and it has extended its deadlines for providing data that is of public interest.
Head PMO: Gov’t Does Not Want “Catastrophe Tourism”
When Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office Gergely Gulyás was asked why the public cannot see what is happening in Covid-wards, he responded saying these places cannot be turned into sites of “catastrophe tourism.”
Gulyás said that it is a lie that hospitals are already picking and choosing who can end up in intensive wards due to a lack of space and personnel. The minister believes that since Hungary has 1678 ventilators and 10 thousand available hospital beds, there can be no issues in healthcare.
Gulyás also denied the validity of Hungary’s death rate statistic and emphasized that the government does not require international aid to help Hungary’s hospitals.
The Hungarian Medical Chamber (MOK) has emphasized that Hungary’s healthcare system faces significant workforce shortages. Responding to Gulyás, the Chamber said “whoever doubts what the Medical Chamber has said regarding the healthcare system being over capacity and having personnel shortages will be welcomed at Covid wards. Come see it with your own eyes!”
Not only the medical chamber, but Hungarian doctors and nurses have shared their experiences with the public anonymously, vouching for the terrible conditions that hospitals are in. They have also stated that hospitals are employing triaging. Since they do not have the capacity to treat all their patients, they must choose those with the highest likelihood of survival.
Health Professional: People Should See Hospital Situation
Head doctor of Hatvan’s Albert Schweitzer Hospital, toxicologist Gábor Zacher told Index that the main problem with the virus is that there is still no concrete information to give people:
This is not based on sensationalism, but simply for the fact that people should see the consequences of the sickness brought on by the coronavirus. They should see how patients are struggling, and how [healthcare workers] are fighting for their lives. The sickness needs to be brought to a personal level, so that everyone understands how severe the situation is.
Since the middle of March, Hungary has globally had the highest number of daily Covid-19 deaths per million people.
Featured photo illustration by Zoltán Balogh/MTI