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People wait outside a Budapest pharmacy, showing "social distancing", March 17, 2020 © 2020 Lydia Gall / Human Rights Watch

Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary has chosen to use the global coronavirus epidemic to fuel xenophobic and anti-migrant rhetoric rather than to focus on developing an actionable plan to deal with it.

As of March 18, Hungary had registered 73 cases of COVID-19, including nine Iranians, students, and their family members.

As the virus begins to circle the globe, it’s no longer possible to imagine controlling it at the borders. What is critical is for countries to be prepared to stop or at least slow its rapid spread and protect vulnerable people. My current research into hospital-acquired infections in Hungary makes me seriously question whether the nation’s mismanaged, underfunded, and understaffed public health care system is equipped to handle a coronavirus outbreak.

Patients and family members of people with hospital-acquired infections, as well as medical experts, repeatedly describe a lack of basic hygiene protocol, lack of isolation rooms, and a shortage of health professionals, doctors and nurses, and medical supplies in general. None of this bodes well for a coronavirus outbreak.

One woman told me her mother contracted several serious hospital infections after a routine surgery. Her health deteriorated as she was shuffled from one hospital to another, while still contagious. She died at age 57.

While the government in late January released a 28-point action plan on the coronavirus, it provides few details of how the authorities will contain it. On March 9, the government finally announced it would allocate 8 billion Hungarian forints (approximately 24 million EUR) to combat the coronavirus and on March 11, it declared a state of emergency, imposing travel bans from four countries, including Iran. On March 13, Prime Minister Orban announced the indefinite closure of schools, kindergartens, and nurseries. On March 16, Hungary closed its borders to foreigners, with some exceptions and on March 18, Prime Minister Orban announced steps to alleviate the burden faced by the Hungarian economy.

Prior to the announcement of extra funds, I spoke to one doctor who told me that the government had made available to her a one-off donation of 50 surgical masks, which she said are more fit as decoration than protection as they don’t filter the actual virus. She also said that it’s nearly impossible to get hold of essential items.

As usual, the government is trying to distract the Hungarian people with anti-foreigner rhetoric.

Orban has said there’s a link between “coronavirus and illegal migrants,” while the Operational Corps, a government group leading the response to Covid-19, accused Iranians previously in quarantine of being uncooperative and is threatening to deport them.

On March 1, the government announced that it would suspend indefinitely admission to the two transit zones on its border with Serbia, saying that asylum seekers on the Serbian side of the border waiting to be admitted into the zones come from high risk countries like Iran. Never mind that most of them have been waiting on the Serbian side on average nearly a year and a half and have not recently been to any of the high-risk areas.

On March 2, the European Commission said it was investigating the closure of the asylum procedure in the transit zones.

Instead of instrumentalizing the virus to further its own xenophobic populist agenda, the Hungarian government owes it to the people in Hungary to ensure that the broken public health care system and its medical staff can do a proper job in containing the virus.

Lydia Gall is the senior Eastern EU/Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch who follows developments in Hungary.

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