Hope for the best, prepare for the worst
17. 04. 2020.
In the management of the coronavirus epidemic, the old wisdom prevails: ‘Hope for the best, and prepare for the worst’, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said on Kossuth Radio’s programme ‘Good morning, Hungary’ on Friday.

The Prime Minister said he would like to help return people’s lives to normal, but at this point he would not yet venture to say that the restrictions should be relaxed; for the time being, he suggests that the restrictions should be upheld. He observed he is aware that, for instance, “staying at home with two or three children, […] what with teaching via the Internet, is nothing short of a jihad”.

If, however, the lifting of certain restrictions proves to work in Austria which is regarded as a laboratory for Hungary’s purposes, the number of infections does not increase, and meanwhile the health care system also remains prepared, then we ourselves should consider resorting to a similar solution, he added, pointing out that “we are happy that for once we are not the lab mice”.

He also said introducing special rules for Budapest – where there are 60 per cent of infections, while in combination with Pest County this number is as high as 80 per cent – will become inevitable sooner or later. Implementing the same measures in a small village as in the capital is not logical. Therefore, perhaps as early as next week they will have to consider differentiating between settlement types.

Based on the Easter experience, he described the regulation of the use of public areas by local governments as a solution that works well, taking the view that mayors were in control of the situation. As also this weekend we can expect fine weather, we are again “faced with the threat of a rise in face-to-face interactions” and therefore the leaders of settlements will again be free to impose restrictions, he said.

Mr Orbán stressed that “we have yet to reach” the peak of the epidemic, the hard part is yet to come, and in the next few days, we will have to expect a higher rise in the number of incidences. “We will enter the phase of mass infections,” but by the time this happens, we will have enough hospital beds, ventilators and health care workers to operate them.

The containment effort so far has been successful, he continued, inasmuch as that they have gained time, have begun to prepare hospitals, have accumulated the necessary supplies, “our warehouses are full”, and reserves necessary for ten days have been delivered to hospitals and social homes. “In this war situation, munitions are available” and consignments are being received one after the other, he said.

Speaking about the need for vacating hospital beds, he said in Hungary there are more than a thousand elderly care homes; if only ten persons become infected in each institution and need hospital treatment, that is already ten thousand patients.

Preparing for a worst-case scenario, we need 8,000 operational ventilators and more than 30,000 hospital beds reserved solely for the treatment of coronavirus patients, he said, indicating that realising this situation does indeed pose problems.

At the same time, he highlighted that in 34 per cent of the 68,000 hospital beds, there were no patients, and so in order to vacate one half of the total available beds, only in the case of 16 per cent of beds were physicians required to send home patients awaiting non-essential interventions. A body of physicians issued professional guidance regarding the protocol for this, he said, stressing that, naturally, this is a tough and inconvenient decision, but there is no other way to solve the problem. Additionally, turning an ordinary hospital bed into an intensive therapy bed is a complex operation, he observed.

In summary, he said “we are in the very midst” of an overarching operation of a military nature which is naturally causing inconvenience.

The Prime Minister spoke about the work of hospital directors, physicians and nurses in words of praise. At the same time, he also pointed out that “while hospital directors, too, are good, operations were not quite as tight during peace time as could be expected now, at the time of an epidemic, and this is why we needed hospital commanders”. He added that in normal circumstances hospital directors enjoy a great deal of autonomy, but now there is an epidemic on, and implementing the decisions of the Operational Group is an obligation.

Regarding the Pesti út elderly care home severely affected by the epidemic, Mr Orbán said what happened cannot go without consequences, but at this time, rather than seeking who is responsible, we should seek cooperation and ways to alleviate the problem, and should later, after the passage of the epidemic, come back to elderly care homes operated by local governments.

In the context of the latest decisions concerning the economy, the Prime Minister said he has high hopes for them, but “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. He is hoping for the best, he said, but he is not as brave as central bank executives who believe that the Hungarian economy will continue to remain on a course of growth. “It would be an enormous feat if we managed to survive this crisis at a near zero level,” he said.

Economic actors would do well to consider that after the epidemic economies will not be the same as before. “Some will prove to be viable, while others will be beyond saving,” he said, adding that adaptation will be key, and businesses will have to explore which activities will continue to make a profit also after the epidemic and which ones will have lost their markets definitively. Workers, too, will have to consider whether this time next year they will have jobs in their current occupations.

He said the government is providing wage support, tax reductions – leaving more than HUF 200 billion in the economy – and procedural relief measures in taxation.

Regarding tourism, the sector employing 400,000 people has sustained “a shot in the lung”, this is where the greatest help is required, and the government has therefore adopted a number of decisions, including the cancellation of the tourism tax and the raising of the maximum amount that can be deposited on ‘SZÉP’ recreational benefit cards. If the Austrian experiments prove to work, and Hungary itself becomes able to lift some of the restrictions, in the summer we could try to bring domestic tourism back to life, he said.

In the context of the 13th month pension, he said Hungarians had seen the left-wing government take one month’s pension away from them during a crisis. This cannot happen now; in actual fact, from 2021 we will begin to reintroduce the 13th month pension.