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Revealing Coronavirus Regional Data: Essential Information, or Potential Panic-mongering and Violation of Personal Data?

Péter Cseresnyés 2020.03.25.

Unlike most countries in the EU, Hungary does not provide regional data on the novel coronavirus infections. The government says it only wants to avoid unnecessary panic and to protect the personal rights of patients, and it is enough if the government and officials are in the know. However, many think these arguments do not hold water and publishing this information would help the fight against the epidemic. Summary.

Hungary is one of the few countries in the EU that does not publish regional data on the coronavirus infections, and although there are official projections on how the epidemic will spread in the country, this information is not publicly available either.

In the surrounding countries, the data about which regions are affected and how many patients are detected per county are all accessible.

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Liberal news site 444.hu checked how detailed the published information is from EU countries regarding the Covid-19 epidemic. According to the article, Hungary is the only country in the EU except for some of the smallest states that does not share where the patients with confirmed coronavirus live.

Poland, for example, created an interactive map where people can check information by district, while Romania had been reporting every patient’s gender, age, and in which county they lived until the 15th of March.

However, in Hungary, only leaked press reports reveal the location of coronavirus cases and there are also countless unofficial virus maps on the Internet that try to paint a relatively accurate picture of the distribution of the virus based on circulating pieces of information.

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The government usually raises two arguments for not publishing regional data: to avoid panic and to protect personal rights.

At the operational board’s news conference last Monday, the Chief Medical Officer explained their decision by stating they want to respect the personal rights of the patients and it wouldn’t be right if a patient was trackable based on their data. When asked by journalists, Cecília Müller repeated several other times that for the time being the number of infected in Hungary is still scarce, so the patients could be easily identified.

It is also questionable why the government is reluctant to publish the regional data of the infections citing the protection of personal rights, while they daily publish the nationality of those infected.

At his regular press briefing, however, Gergely Gulyás, head of the Prime Minister’s Office, said the regional data would not be made public because the government wants to avoid panic in the regions concerned.

But the government’s arguments are often disputed. Regarding the spreading of panic, it is often noted that in countries where regional data is available to the public, there are no indications of increased hysteria.

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Also, as an article by liberal news site hvg.hu points out, the privacy argument is not valid because Hungary’s National Center for Public Health (NNK) lists the number of all infectious patients registered in the country in their weekly report by county- except for the coronavirus.

The president of the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (NAIH), responsible for the enforcement of the right to the protection of personal data and the right to freedom of information, held a similar stance.

Attila Péterfalvi told news radio Inforádió last Thursday that the data does not clearly identify a specific person, and therefore cannot be considered personal information. If data appears for an area that concerns a larger town, since the coronavirus is not a rare disease, it is qualified as statistical data, and a particular person cannot be identified.

But Péterfalvi has also emphasized that under normal circumstances this data needs to be published, but in the current situation there may be factors – scaremongering, different preventive measures – that require extra considerations.

The data controller, the operational board, may have information about this, which may influence the traditional enforcement of the provisions of freedom of information. Attila Péterfalvi also drew attention to the fact that in the current state of emergency, practices other than the normal legal provisions may apply.

Featured photo via Pixabay/sferrario1968 


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