The reaction of Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government to the coronavirus outbreak stunned a lot of people. Nevertheless, the steps taken were not surprising, nor unexpected: they were in perfect accordance with the government’s practices of the past ten years.
The government proclaimed a state of emergency to deal with the situation, despite human rights watchdogs claiming that all the legal instruments were already at the government’s disposal to take the legal steps necessary for stopping the epidemic, even without declaring a state of emergency. However, such facts don’t matter in a system where the majority government habitually exercises extraordinary jurisdiction whenever they want to reinforce state control, ever so casually violating civil liberties in the process. In the past decade, Hungary had a so-called “state of crisis due to mass migration” as well as experiencing long years of increased use of police “stop and search” practices, both regulations unfounded and unsubstantiated.
Under the auspices of a new statute, the government has recently appointed the prime minister to oversee Hungary’s response to the coronavirus; not the Minister of Health, not the Minister of Interior, but the prime minister. Many Hungarians can’t even name their Health Secretary. This notion brings the past ten years to light as an era of unprecedented centralisation in the public administration sphere. Step by step, the governing majority extinguished the professional, organisational, and financial autonomy of public institutions, while putting such control mechanisms in place that ensure the prime minister’s decision making power in all significant policy areas. If the prime minister wishes, it makes any policy area a political one. This is how epidemiology, in Hungary, becomes a political matter.
Independent organisations in the professional realm are not to concern themselves with political questions, even if they are talking about public policy issues that concern everyone, so declares the government. If the organisation of medical professionals, the Hungarian Medical Chamber, warns at the beginning of an outbreak that there is not enough protective gear for doctors and nurses, the immediate response from the government is that the doctors are blackmailing the government and, as the government’s spokesperson put it, their criticism is a part of a political attack.
Instead of hearing the doctors’ cry for help, the government brings the issue into the political field and condemns the experts who have been facing it on a daily basis. The same method was used against teachers and educators, library and museum staff, social workers, who are all asking for some appreciation and better working conditions, not to mention judges and lawyers standing up for the independence of the judiciary. The government’s response to the civil society’s remarks is the same as well: instead of taking constructive critiques and professional assessments under consideration, they label these as political attacks.
There are practically no independent bodies left in public administration that would dare communicate professional opinions even slightly different from that of the government’s. It’s been a long process to get to this point. This included the elimination of the National Public Health and Medical Officer Service in 2017, ultimately merging it into a ministry. The continuous reorganisations have led to increasing uncertainty and vulnerability in the public sphere. However, public healthcare was not the only area in which the government diminished the independence of formerly autonomous organisations under the false egis of efficiency.
The same method was used when detaching the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and reassigning them to the oversight of a new institution dependent on the prime minister. The Ministry of Environmental Protection was dismantled in the same way. Within the judiciary, in the name of efficiency, the governing majority established the National Office for the Judiciary, led by Tünde Handó, which had an instrumental role in exercising control over “defiant” judges.
With my Polish partner, we watched Polish and Hungarian news coverage discussing the coronavirus, back to back. The differences were striking. In the Polish media, casually-dressed health care politicians and doctors were sharing information about how many new medical ventilators and masks the country was buying, about best practices in Polish healthcare, and about how they are reducing social contact in the country through closing schools and bishops absolving congregations of attending mass. In turn, in the Hungarian news, uniformed officials were saying that the hospitals are prepared without mentioning any specifics, while the government-friendly media informed people that Iranians, who defy disease control regulations, will be deported via policing proceedings. This was followed by the prime minister’s proclamation that the virus was brought into the country by foreigners.
Yet again, the government communication echoed a familiar theme, inducing fear against migration and hatred against foreigners. This serves a sole purpose: to obtain “ownership over the moment.” To calm, even if just for a moment, those susceptible to militaristic décor and rhetoric, instead of discussing the state of the hospitals or the circumstances of the medical professionals having to treat patients without sufficient protection.
It does not matter that almost anyone can enter the country, as long as the prime minister - posing for a picture with border patrol - can announce that he is closing the borders, because he is a strong-willed, determined leader, appearing to handle the crisis that he is, with the changes of the past ten years, partially responsible for. To own the moment during a situation in which the very government that set out to solve the crisis is also causing the sense of uncertainty surrounding it. In a country where public trust in police and law enforcement has been low for decades, this certainly won’t build much public confidence and trust.
The necessity to own the moment, then, warrants authority to interfere in our lives. Clearly, preventing a viral outbreak requires extraordinary measures, yet, these should not be unlimited. Quarantining, mandatory testing, limiting the freedom of movement and banning events all interfere with people’s personal space. And make no mistake: governments like the Hungarian government are not capable of controlling themselves well enough to refrain from interfering with our rights unnecessarily or disproportionately. Therefore, in this state of emergency, there is even more need for groups and NGOs protecting civil liberties. And that’s also why the government will attempt to label these groups a national security risk.
However, it is not only NGOs who can take a stand to protect and help each other in the difficult months to come. Every person and community has the opportunity, as well as the responsibility, to move beyond their personal anxiety and join forces against the crisis. Many Hungarians have done so far. A public initiative has started to aid struggling theatres that were closed down and face financial difficulties. The Hallgatói Szakszervezet (Student Union) has started a solidarity initiative to assist students, who must abruptly move out of their closing dorms.
Given the lack of efficient government communication on necessary precautions, the #MaradjOtthon (#StayAtHome) movement started, urging people to practice social distancing whenever possible. aHang! (TheVoice) has started a crowdfunding campaign for the Red Cross. A petition is calling on the Chinese government to cease censorship of news and information regarding the coronavirus. There are several international movements aiming to strengthen solidarity, for instance by supporting cafés, restaurants, and people working there, to prepare for the dry spell to come.
You have a role in this fight. Get over your anxiety, wash your hands, stay home if you can, and join or launch a community initiative for solidarity. You own the moment.
- Dávid Vig is Director of Amnesty International Hungary
This piece was first published in Hungarian by Index.hu.
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