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Zoltán Kovács: Hungary’s criticised Coronavirus Protection Act has saved thousands of lives ǀ View

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On Tuesday, the government of Hungary will introduce a bill in the National Assembly proposing to hand back the extraordinary powers that it acquired under the state of emergency put into effect to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The country has weathered, it appears, the first wave of this crisis, and we are turning our energies now to cautiously restarting our lives and opening up the economy.

With this move, Prime Minister Orbán is doing what he said he would all along. Once the threat subsided, the extraordinary powers would also be given back. Our government’s detractors would have had you believe otherwise.

On 11 March, one week after reports of the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Hungary, the government ordered a state of emergency (called a “state of danger” in the Hungarian constitution). On 30 March, Hungary’s National Assembly – acting upon the government’s initiative – passed the so-called Coronavirus Protection Act, which gave the government, like similar measures in other countries, sweeping powers to protect the lives of our people and brace the economy.

The international criticism was swift and intense. They sounded the alarm over Prime Minister Orbán’s supposed “seizure of absolute power,” that the government was exploiting the pandemic to dissolve parliament, cancel elections indefinitely and threaten journalists with the prospect of jail time. One group called it “a full-blown information police state in the heart of Europe,” and some drew allusions to Hitler.

Much of it was badly misinformed, often just plain false, and all of it was shamefully biased, clearly singling out Hungary, despite the fact that similar measures in other EU countries went much further. Watching it all from Budapest as we fight the greatest public health crisis that Europe has seen in a century, it was surreal.

The act did not grant the government “unlimited powers,” nor did it dissolve or suspend parliament. The legislative package was passed entirely in accordance with Hungary’s constitution, the Fundamental Law, which requires that it come to an end once the threat is no longer present. In fact, it went further by giving parliament the right to lift the state of emergency. “At any given moment, parliament must be in a position to take back the right of decision from the government,” Prime Minister Orbán told the National Assembly in late March.

The act did not grant the government “unlimited powers,” nor did it dissolve or suspend parliament. The legislative package was passed entirely in accordance with Hungary’s constitution, the Fundamental Law, which requires that it come to an end once the threat is no longer present.
Zoltán Kovács
International spokesperson for the Cabinet Office of Hungarian prime minister

Today, as time and results have shown, the Coronavirus Protection Act served the country well because it enabled the government to take swift action, closing borders (which Hungary did early on), enacting movement restrictions, enforcing quarantines, slowing the spread of the disease, and ensuring that our national healthcare system has the medical and protective equipment necessary to treat all those who require care.

“Compared to other countries,” said Prime Minister Orbán in a recent interview, “we were able to make decisions one or two weeks earlier.” While nearly 500 people in Hungary have died from the disease – far too many – because of this ability to act decisively, the prime minister said: “we can say that the defense has saved the lives of thousands of elderly people.”

According to statistics out of Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, Hungary has 38.73 confirmed cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants in Hungary, one of the lower rates in Europe, especially compared to western European countries where the figure is in the hundreds (e.g., 278.88 in France, 183.24 in Austria, and 380.80 in the United Kingdom).

We anticipate that the economic data on April and May will be tough, but these extraordinary measures also enabled the government to move decisively to protect jobs, support wages, provide financial relief to those operating in some of the hardest hit sectors and offer government-backed, preferential loans. As we begin to lift restrictions and open up the economy again, we’re working hard on recovery.

To our vociferous critics, this might be a good time to offer an apology, but that would require some humility and a sense of good will, so I suspect we will not be hearing any.
Zoltán Kovács
International spokesperson for the Cabinet Office of Hungarian prime minister

Prime Minister Orbán promised at the beginning of this crisis that these extraordinary powers would stay in force only as long as necessary to protect the population and slow the spread of the coronavirus. Once the threat subsided, they would be given back. With this move on Tuesday, the prime minister is fulfilling that promise.

The virus is still with us, of course, and the fight goes on. But as we look back over the last several difficult weeks, we recall how critics claimed that this law hailed the end of democracy in our country. In fact, more Hungarians are alive today because of it.

To our vociferous critics, this might be a good time to offer an apology, but that would require some humility and a sense of good will, so I suspect we will not be hearing any.

  • Zoltán Kovács is Secretary of State for International Communication and Relations and International spokesperson for the Cabinet Office of Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán.

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