In Hungary, the Coronavirus Is Just an Excuse

In Hungary the Coronavirus Is Just an Excuse

Viktor Orbán is the prime minister of Hungary. He has been in power since 2010. During that time, he has underinvested in hospitals. Instead, public money has gone to pet projects, many of them related to the sports he enjoys. In his home village, Felcsút, the government built an elaborate soccer stadium with a heated field and 3,814 seats—which, as The New York Times noted, is twice the number of people who live in the village. Meanwhile, the nearby county hospital’s emergency ward has long struggled to cope with even an ordinary number of patients. On one evening in October, a visiting Times reporter found two harried doctors on call at midnight, and 30 people waiting for treatment.

During the past decade, Orbán’s government has also misdirected European Union money—some meant to encourage regional development in places like Felcsút, some meant specifically for medical development—to friends and party comrades. This kind of corruption, coupled with the Hungarian government’s nationalist rhetoric, has famously persuaded many educated people to leave the country, including doctors. Poor salaries in the health service haven’t persuaded them to stay. Now, thanks to COVID-19, Hungary faces a looming health crisis, as well as an economic crisis.

Who will Orbán blame? The answer, dear reader, is: you. And me. And anyone inside or outside Hungary reading or distributing material critical of the Hungarian government.

On March 30, the Hungarian Parliament, which is controlled by Orbán’s party, Fidesz, voted to cancel all elections, suspend its own ability to legislate, and give the prime minister the right to rule by decree—indefinitely. None of these powers is needed to fight the coronavirus. None of them fixes the existing problems in Hungarian hospitals. All of them will help the Hungarian government push through other measures. Almost immediately, they were used to pass controversial edicts on museum construction and theater management, and to forbid sex changes—issues without the remotest relevance to the pandemic.

Like many others, I tweeted criticism of this de facto coup d’état. The next day, some of those who searched for Anne Applebaum and Hungary received, as one of their top Google results, this message from the Hungarian government’s English-language propaganda site, “Coronavirus Protection Act: The importance of saving Hungarian lives is clearly not a priority outside Hungary.” Meanwhile, József Szájer, one of the leaders of Hungary’s European parliamentary delegation, sent out a letter to foreign colleagues—members of a pan-European alliance of center-right parties with which Fidesz is aligned—accusing them of lacking concern for Hungarian lives. “Please,” Szájer wrote, “do not hinder us by unfounded criticism in the midst of our fight!” His use of hinder is extraordinary, for it implies, again, that foreign criticism will somehow harm Hungary’s battle against the coronavirus.

Not coincidentally, this is the same kind of language used by Zoltán Kovács, Hungary’s serially dishonest press spokesperson—think Kellyanne Conway with facial hair—when he speaks about Hungary’s small but still vocal political opposition, as well as critiques from abroad. “We’re in a state of emergency, by the way,” he sneered in a posted comment. “Lives are at stake.” For that reason, he wrote, the “gross distortion” of the “facts” about the situation is “biased and irresponsible.” State-controlled media have gone further, openly labeling the government’s opponents as proponents of the virus.

Why does this matter? Because although Hungary is a small country, it is one whose creeping authoritarianism is widely admired. In early February, I wrote about the rapturous reception that Orbán had received at a conference of self-declared nationalist and far-right intellectuals—American, Israeli, and European—in Rome. I fully expect his tactics to be imitated: Anybody who disagrees with my emergency laws is trying to spread illness is something we will hear again. So is Whichever mistakes we made in the past, we are not responsible for them now. Indeed, I suspect that we will hear that sentiment again and again. In the United States, President Donald Trump has already blamed an extraordinary array of actors, from state governors to Barack Obama to China, for mistakes made by himself and his administration.

Outside Hungary, other parliaments and assemblies have found ways to keep working. It’s true that Britain’s Parliament is in early recess; members departed for Easter six days earlier than they otherwise would have. But they have a designated date of return, and they are already setting up systems to conduct some business online. The European Parliament, meanwhile, is physically unable to meet: Many of its members—my husband is one, from Poland—literally have no way to get to the parliamentary chamber in Brussels, since planes have stopped flying and borders have closed. Nevertheless, members managed to debate and even to vote last week, using a bespoke online system. A variety of other parliaments, from the Danish Folketing to the German Bundestag, have set up special procedures to continue operations.

Few lawmakers, at least so far, expect their government’s emergency measures to be abused. If, by contrast, his European counterparts have little confidence in the Hungarian prime minister, that is his own fault. His government has had an “emergency” anti-migration decree in place since 2015, though anything resembling an immigration emergency has long passed.

Yet criticism, both domestic and foreign, can have a positive effect, even in Budapest. Alongside measures about museums, theaters, and sex changes, Orbán also issued a decree that would remove powers from local governments, many of which are led by opposition politicians. This was not only an egregious power grab; it may well have complicated the pandemic response in municipalities. In the wake of that edict, outrage was so loud and so sustained that the government withdrew the measure a mere 16 hours later.

So ignore the Hungarian-government propagandists. Also ignore anyone else who tells you that their policy is above criticism, that politics don’t apply in a pandemic, or that accountability and transparency need to be suspended for some indefinite period of time. The opposite is true: All of the decisions being made right now, whether medical or economic, deserve widespread scrutiny and debate. As Francis Fukuyama has written, there is no evidence that authoritarians are better than others at controlling disease; several democracies—South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and perhaps Germany—look like they have control of their coronavirus outbreaks. Nor does any evidence show that secrecy produces better outcomes; quite the contrary.

There is evidence that effective bureaucracy, good information and good data will help us survive. If we are not only to get through this global crisis but come out on the other side better prepared, we also need to keep track of which decisions were made and when, and to remember who was responsible for them: In the United States and the United Kingdom, in China and Taiwan, in Germany and France, in South Africa and Brazil—and in Hungary too.

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