Omicron, the new, aggressive mutation of the coronavirus, is spreading rapidly in Hungary, increasing the number of cases. The phenomenon is not unique, and not new: already at the beginning of December, scientists around the world suspected that the largest wave of the coronavirus to date could be upon us. The only question was whether the South African mutation would cause more severe symptoms than the delta variant. Epidemic curves are reaching new heights in several European countries. However, there is one striking difference between Hungary and the other countries: Hungary decided not to significantly tighten restrictions, while other countries introduced restrictions when the variant emerged, the portal Portfolio reports. According to data from Oxford University, there is no other country in Europe with such loose coronavirus regulations.
This article was originally published on our sister-site, Ungarn Heute.
Last week saw the start of the European Handball Championship, hosted in part by Hungary, and there was a big outcry among athletes because disease control is so lax. The French even said it was shocking that although they were careful even during the Christmas holidays at home, in Hungary they are “locked together” in a hotel with people not wearing masks.
This example illustrates the great differences in epidemiological regulations in Europe, or rather in the European Union. In terms of strictness, Hungary currently has the fewest restrictions in Europe. Among other things, masks are not mandatory everywhere, and immunity cards are not required practically anywhere, except at major sporting events and concerts. For example, people who received their second vaccination in the spring can still go there without a mask. But most scientists, including those in Hungary, warn that vaccination against omicron given a long time ago does not provide much protection.
This is now the only area where the government wants to be stricter after all: the immunity card, which was previously issued even after recovery, even if someone is not yet vaccinated, will be valid from February 15 only with complete vaccination, which means:
- with three vaccinations (with Janssen the second booster vaccination)
- with two vaccinations where the second one was not administered more than 180 days ago
- the third vaccination, and therefore the vaccination certificate, according to current rules cannot expire, even if the last dose was given more than six months ago.
The government, moreover, continues to rely on vaccination as the only protection. In other words, the number of tests performed is still at a record low in Hungary. The government has repeatedly emphasized that it is not testing but vaccination that can prevent infection. Perhaps this is true, but it could slow the spread of the epidemic. After all, no one stays home with a mild sore throat these days, but neither is every cold investigated with expensive tests. At home, for example, even a rapid test is available for about HUF 8,000 (22.45 euros), and a PCR test is much more expensive at HUF 19,500 (55 euros). (Occasionally there are special offers and lower prices).
In the last two years, we have become accustomed to the tightening of corona measures, especially when the number of cases rose rapidly (even if they were then increasingly relaxed again and again later on). During the rising phase, at least a mask requirement had been introduced. However, the spread of the Omicron variant has not yet triggered more restrictive government measures.
Oxford University scale shows relaxed Hungarian measures
The various government measures are aggregated by Oxford University on a scale of 0-100. University staff assign a number to each measure according to an objective scale and sum them up according to current epidemiological rules. The higher the index, the more severe the situation in the country.
In Hungary, the index now stands at 22 points and has not risen significantly since the summer.
This means that apart from some inconvenient measures (e.g. the need to present an immunity card at certain events), we are basically living our lives as they were before the epidemic.
According to the data from the university, there is no other country in Europe with such relaxed measures.
Are we more lenient than the Swedes?
The “Swedish model” has been the most criticized in the last two years as far as disease control is concerned. For a long time, Sweden was the only EU country with less stringent restrictions than Hungary, but since then the Swedes have tightened their measures. Sweden has been accused of (or even praised for) following an unconventional, lax path: during the first wave in 2020, Swedish disease management followed the European pattern, with limiting social contact at the center of the strategy. Looking at the average severity of action in Europe per day since the onset of the disease, Sweden is now somewhere in the middle.
This is different from Finland, Norway, and Denmark. According to Portfolio, these countries combined the European isolation model with the East Asian “tracking model.” The Finnish, Danish, and Norwegians only partially implemented general restrictions (e.g., for mass gatherings), relying instead on strict suppression of local “hotspots” and rapid intervention based on effective contact tracing. The result so far is clear: loose measures have the lowest mortality rates.
If we look at the average of restrictions for each day over the last two years, Hungary is among the countries that have the loosest measures – with the important difference that we do not have effective contact tracing. The focus of defense at the moment is almost exclusively on vaccination. Hungary has a very high mortality rate and is among the TOP countries in Europe in this respect.
Most countries have introduced stricter measures because they fear that the increasing number of cases could overwhelm their hospitals. While it remains to be seen whether Omicron could lead to mass hospitalization, the rapid spread of the disease even if it has a milder course could be a cause for concern.
It is also a fact that not only the Hungarian government, but all European countries are aiming for high vaccination coverage. Several governments believe that the Omicron wave can be contained through vaccination. The United Kingdom has vaccinated 33 million people for the third time since December 17, and Austria plans to make coronavirus vaccination mandatory starting in February. Italy has already introduced it for those over 50. In Hungary, 3.2 million people have requested a third vaccination, and the country has introduced mandatory vaccination in healthcare and public education.
Sources: Portfolio, Válasz Online
Featured image: illustration via Márton Mónus/MTI