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Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Kossuth Radio programme “Good Morning Hungary”

Katalin Nagy: The daily increase in the number of people infected is about 10 per cent, but fortunately the infection rate curve is fairly flat. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. What new measures were agreed on at the Operational Group Meeting this morning? Did you need to introduce any new, tougher measures?

Good morning to your listeners. The Operational Group meeting starts with a review of the current reports – primarily health and epidemiological reports. There are now 623 confirmed cases of infection, and 26 people have died. Then we listen to border security reports, as in essence the borders are closed, but we’re keeping humanitarian corridors open for transit purposes. And then we listen to reports on the state of play in preparation for the upcoming surge; because in this regard we’re still at the beginning. So the big surge that will test our health service is still ahead of us. This is what we’re preparing for now. Psychologically the situation that the country is in – and that we are in – is difficult, it’s not easy, because here’s a problem, the virus, that people are trying to eliminate. So mankind wants to destroy the virus, we want to eradicate it. But we can’t do that, because we don’t have a vaccine. We all know what we must do, but we don’t have the tool with which to do it. If a vaccine was available we’d all be vaccinated, say “Thank you very much”, and continue with our lives as before. But there’s no vaccine, and the experts and scientists say that in this situation there’s only one option, one solution: we must slow the spread of the virus. So far there’s only one way to do this, and that is to reduce our face-to-face social interactions to the absolute minimum possible. And that’s what we’re working on every day. But always at the back of my mind, like a faint voice in my ear, is the thought that what we should really be doing is not this, but killing the virus; but we ourselves are not equipped to do that, because we’re all in the hands of humanity’s smartest people, and our scientists. Others all around the world are working on this, and we have to wait for the results they can come up with. So what remains to us is slowing the spread of infection. And there’s one more thing we need to do, because those who become infected can fall ill, and those who fall ill can be very ill indeed. And those who are very ill can even die. Therefore the other thing we must do is fight for the life of every single person. We will try to save every Hungarian in distress, we will fight for them. The more disciplined we are in our defence operation, the better we will be able to contain the epidemic. So that’s how things stand now, just over twenty – in fact twenty-three – days after we declared this state of emergency. Well, since then this is the only thing that I’ve been dealing with. And let me thank, let me salute, all those who have been fighting on the front line – and everyone working on the home front. Our doctors are excellent, and our nurses are exemplary. Our paramedics are up to their eyes in work. Our epidemiologists are manning their posts. Police, law enforcement personnel and soldiers are working with great diligence, as are all those providing for our needs in grocery stores, pharmacies and freight transportation. In other words, everyone. And it’s perhaps important to mention mothers, because I see the difficulties in my own family: the younger the child – say in kindergarten or elementary school – the greater the burden on mothers, because they can’t leave their children at school. To put it more accurately, they could take their children to school, because the schools are open: we’re providing supervision of children in groups of five, and they’re also being taught; but mothers don’t dare to leave their children there. Despite the fact that I say that schools are open and children can be brought in, I can see that parents are saying that they’ll do that when the problem has passed. Of course no one knows what’s meant by the problem having passed; but that’s when they’ll let their children go back. As a result, their children have to be cared for at home. And hats off to our teachers, who’ve been able to switch from face-to-face teaching in person to online teaching. But with a child in one of the lower years at elementary school, it won’t work if their mother or someone else isn’t sitting alongside them. So I see that mothers are feeling very tired. And of course members of the older age group are in most danger, because one has to say that while we younger people feel this less, it is the most difficult for them. We have personal experience of the fact that the older you are, the more you want to be with others, because you struggle with loneliness. And at present it’s not possible for relatives, families and friends to come and go as they usually do. So this is particularly difficult for those of advanced years. I pay tribute to the discipline with which most of our elderly compatriots have been following the requests and rules that life has imposed upon them.

Last week you said that the number of contacts, of face-to-face personal contacts, had fallen to one tenth of its normal level. Has this also been the case this week? We’ve see that the police and auxiliary police who help with their work have reported that people need to be warned, but most people are being very disciplined in doing what they need to do. Next week, however, is Holy Week: the week leading up to Easter.

Well, we’re in a difficult situation. I plan to make a decision on Wednesday on the future status of restrictions on free movement. This Sunday will be Palm Sunday, and next week is Easter, which is a holiday for families. We’re powerfully motivated to take part in traditional celebrations at Easter, and to see our parents, grandparents or children. This will hardly be possible now – or only under tight restrictions. The restrictions on freedom of movement will be in effect until Saturday: next Saturday. We must decide on whether or not to maintain them – and if we do maintain them, in what form. I can’t see the full picture now, and so I’m waiting until Wednesday: the medical, epidemiological and police reports available on Wednesday will form the basis of my decision on whether or not the restrictions need to be extended. Well, if needs must, we’ll do it – but I feel that would be unnatural. So of course for Easter I hope that we’ll be able to make a slight adjustment, and that there will be a few calmer days which allow for deeper reflection. After all, at this time of the year we tend to direct our thoughts towards God. Perhaps this year we will not omit to do that, but we’ll also be thinking about ourselves and how to organise our lives in the period ahead. There’s one question on everyone’s mind: what will happen? For how long will we have to accept these restrictions? Our generation, after all, lived through thirty years under communism, and this armed us with experience. I clearly remember that back then friends would ask each other “What will happen?” And the corny joke was the answer: “We know what’ll happen, but what’ll happen in the meantime?” So we knew we would push out the Russians, the Soviets, somehow – and sooner or later we would sort out the communists. But what would happen in the meantime? And now too we know that there will be a vaccine. The professors, the doctors, give different dates for this, although everyone says a year or a year and a half. Fine, fine – but what until then? Are we going to live like this, shut indoors, in our bunkers, away from school, in straitened circumstances? So this is going to be difficult. And perhaps Easter is a good time to think about how we want to organise our lives up until we see something that we all know will happen: the emergence of a vaccine. But how are we going to do this? So I think it’s worth thinking about this at Easter, and maybe facing up to our fears. Because everyone is afraid, as we face an unknown enemy. In its essence it’s a small thing, this virus. Indeed it’s hard to imagine what it might look like. So we’re facing an insidious, inscrutable enemy. Our fear is understandable. But fear is there to be conquered. In our everyday language we call this courage. On that score we’re not doing particularly well. As I see it we’re fighting two viruses: the coronavirus, and the virus of fear. At Easter we should arm ourselves so that we can conquer this fear. It’s true that we’re not all in the same situation, and of course anyone can be brave, and anyone can conquer their fears; but there are groups of people – and they form the majority of those who I work with nowadays – for who this is a duty. Theirs is what I would call “inbuilt” duty. There are people whose duty it is to conquer their fears, because this is the only way they can help others. Above all we expect this from priests, because conquering fear requires spiritual strength, and that is their stock-in-trade. In second place come state leaders, who must make difficult decisions; and those who are prey to fear will be unable to make good decisions. In third place are the police, soldiers and disaster management personnel: those serving in uniform. They have undertaken to fight the enemy – physically, if need be. So for these people courage is an inbuilt duty. Then we have doctors, who have taken up the fight against an invisible enemy. So I hope that at Easter everyone will calmly look inwards and take stock of their inbuilt duties, to ascertain what they’re called upon to do. And we will try to settle down into our lives over the next few months until a vaccine is discovered. Then life in Hungary will be bearable.

Hospital commanders have started work, and since last week we’ve seen a succession of planeloads of protective equipment arriving in the country. These have been from the East, mostly from China and Turkey. It’s interesting that assistance is coming from the East, and criticism is coming from the West. This criticism of the Hungarian coronavirus legislation seems to have been quite well organised, appearing first in the Western media, and later in statements by Western politicians.

First, in relation to preparations and your mention of assistance coming from the East, let me just say that I don’t want to turn this into an ideological issue, one of East versus West. I can see that there are some who do want to do that, and I envy them for that being the extent of their problems. Meanwhile, I’m concentrating on practical matters. But it’s undoubtedly true that help has come from the Turkic Council – to whom I wrote a request for assistance. And we’ve received help from the Chinese, having managed to develop meaningful cooperation with them. This forms an important part of our preparations. In effect we’ve had to build an air bridge. Yesterday we even received a complete line of production equipment, which will enable us to manufacture face masks. This is now being installed. We’ve ordered ventilators. Their arrival is crucial, so that we can commission them. We’re also building a disease control hospital in Kiskunhalas, which will be completed soon; and we’re freeing up hospitals to be ready to receive coronavirus patients. Naturally we also need a staff rotation plan, because doctors and nurses can’t expect not to fall ill just because they’re healthcare workers. Every country’s experiences show that the disease also appears among them – in fact among them the risk of infection is even higher. And so they’ll have to be substituted. In this respect Hungarian law is beneficial, because in a healthcare emergency every healthcare worker is required to serve in the location that they’re deployed to. Of course the wording of the law is somewhat more elegant, and it’s not expressed in such military terms. We call it secondment, but in fact it’s redeployment, and in this situation we’re able to manage all doctors and nurses – all healthcare workers – centrally. Your listeners can’t see it, but in my hand I have what is now the country’s most important document: it’s called the Healthcare Redeployment Plan. Here it is.

It seems quite weighty.

This is it. It’s about how to regroup resources when the surge starts, when mass infection starts, and when people start arriving in hospitals by the thousands and tens of thousands. It’s about how we’ll provide care for them and, where necessary, redeploy which healthcare workers from which hospitals to which other ones. And 110 student halls of residence have been commandeered, providing beds for 19,820 people. Likewise 58 hotels have been commandeered and are on standby, with the potential to accommodate 5,661 people. In this regard 3,543 vehicles have been requisitioned, and we’ll be able to provide meals for 203,770 people. This is a military-style deployment plan for the mass transmission phase of the epidemic. This is what we’re working on. The question now is what Brussels is doing. They’re preoccupied with us, even though they should be concentrating on the virus and the disease. I don’t want to interfere in their business, but at the end of the day we’re talking about people’s lives. I don’t know what kind of people are sitting over there, but what I do know is that here in Budapest the loss of every single Hungarian life causes pain: it is painful collectively, to all of us; and it is also painful to me personally. One can have no more important task than working on ways to save lives. For this we need unity and cooperation. The more we cooperate, the more lives we will be able to save. Something else is in fashion over there. In Brussels they’re sitting in some sort of bubble; and instead of saving lives, they’re busy telling other people what to do. This is what I see. I think the most important thing is not to allow them to distract us from our own work: we mustn’t allow ourselves to be provoked, or become agitated. We must keep our righteous indignation under control, and must continue to concentrate all our energy on how to help the Hungarian people, and how to save as many lives as possible. Tomorrow Gergely Gulyás, the minister for governmental coordination, will present the Hungarian public with the disease control fund that we’ve set up. This contains all manner of measures and financial instruments. I can perhaps say in advance that this year we’ll pay every healthcare worker a bonus of 500,000 forints in recognition of their work. And this disease control action plan features a number of other elements in addition to this.

Just one other thing about Brussels. Although it wasn’t officially announced, it subsequently came to light that within its borders Romania has suspended application of the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. One finds it hard to understand why, in comparison with this, it is a problem that in Hungary the Government has sought authorisation to rule by decree until the end of the epidemic – while throughout this period Parliament will remain in session. Mightn’t they have confused the Hungarian government with the leadership of Budapest? There the City Assembly didn’t sit in March, and the Mayor of Budapest has stated that he won’t reconvene it until the end of the epidemic – during which time he’ll rule by decree.

The European Parliament is only sitting in some internet-based form, so it’s not really in session. The Hungarian parliament is still at work. Yesterday and the day before yesterday we submitted sixteen bills. So we’re not only dealing with disease control issues – because it’s the Government’s job, the Government’s duty to deal with those by decree; but meanwhile in the normal side of our lives there are matters in addition to disease control issues. Law-making must continue to operate there, so we’ve submitted these bills, and the Hungarian parliament is working at full tilt. So the claims being made by our opponents – whom in this situation I can unhesitatingly describe as our enemies – are factually false. If I take a good look at the scope and degree of the “state of danger” powers granted to the Hungarian government and to me personally, what I see is that they’re more or less equivalent to the powers which the President of France has under normal circumstances. So it’s absolutely obvious that these are political attacks. And the truth is that this is a network. I’m loath to repeat this mantra, but Hungary has opponents who are only too eager to sink their teeth into this country: they want to plunder it and appropriate its resources. George Soros stands at the centre of this network. His people are in Brussels, in the positions from where the present criticisms are being aimed at us. But as I’ve said, we mustn’t allow ourselves to be provoked. We should lower the adrenalin level a little and concentrate on our job: how to help the Hungarian people and how to save Hungarian lives.

Saving jobs is very important. This is what everyone’s talking about. In the United States, too, unemployment has risen dramatically. What is the Hungarian government doing to save jobs?

We are not the cause of the economic crisis: we didn’t look for it and we didn’t want it. We weren’t the cause of it: it just landed on us. I think one can presume that this will be a global economic crisis – but it’s certain to be a Europe-wide crisis at the very least. The question is how we should organise our lives, how we should fight against this economic crisis in Hungary. As to our main direction, I can tell you that when I was still an active footballer, our skipper was Jenő Lasztovicza – rest his soul. In the changing room before the match he’d assign us our tasks: “You’ll attack here, on the left, and you down the middle.” And we asked him, “Jenő, who’s going to defend?” To which he replied, “Well, the other team.” In my thinking crisis management always has the same logic. We don’t want to retreat in the face of the crisis, and we don’t want to defend: we want to attack. What does this mean? It means not abandoning our goals. So I always focus on the fact that the Hungarian people have goals. The country also has shared goals. Circumstances have now changed, but we mustn’t abandon the goals. Instead, we must achieve them in different ways – and we can attain them through different means. I don’t want to return – and I don’t want my country to return – to the era of an economy based on welfare benefits. Because benefits eventually lead to the need for credit, and that results in high levels of debt. So to my mind a benefits-based economy looks like this: benefits, handouts, devaluation and dependence – and in the end a life of beggary. But there’s another path: the work-based economy, in which there is work, income, self-respect, independence – and in the end a proud life. This is something we mustn’t abandon. Therefore I think we must preserve jobs and create new ones. On Tuesday we’ll present what I believe is the largest economic stimulus plan in the history of the Hungarian economy. This consists of four chapters: the first chapter is about the preservation of jobs, while the second is dedicated to creating new ones. So we’re making enormous efforts and we want to mobilise massive forces – partly to protect what can still be protected, and partly to launch an immediate attack in order to create as many new jobs as possible. This will facilitate our action plan. Unless we do this, the economy will be one based on benefits, meaning that we’ll have to take out loans, mostly from abroad; and we’ll find ourselves turning into the street at the end of which we’ll find the IMF and financial speculators such as George Soros waiting for us. I counsel against this. So let’s fight this crisis while not abandoning our goals, not abandoning what we’ve achieved, not abandoning Hungary’s independence, not abandoning a work-based economy, and not abandoning the opportunity for a proud life.

Yes, but this requires fundamental changes. I saw a picture of you and [Minister of Finance] Mihály Varga on your Facebook page on 31 March, accompanied by a caption stating that the task now in hand is to redesign and rearrange the budget – both this year’s budget and next year’s. Incidentally, have you received any ideas or assistance from the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry? Is the National Bank of Hungary taking part in this programme?

My motto or guiding precept is that one can never be smart enough on one’s own. A country’s fate, problems and woes are challenges which are far too great to allow room for the belief that one will be smart enough alone and without assistance from others. So from the outset we must continuously engage all the intellectual energies available to us, including the Central Bank, economists from academia, bodies representing interest groups such as the Chamber; and then the people whom I worked with in government earlier, when they held various economic portfolios. So I’m consulting them all, I’m talking to them. This programme is being developed, and the work has been in progress for some weeks. One shouldn’t be surprised that I’m not rushing to make it public, because – I reiterate – we now need a convincing and powerful action plan which will provide hope for the future. We’re making very good progress with it, we’re working very hard. I believe we’ll have completed it on Monday afternoon, and we’ll be able to unveil it on Tuesday.

One more question: you’ve said a legal hiatus appeared when last week Parliament was unable and unwilling to vote in the required numbers for the fast-tracking of debate on the bill for emergency measures – which Parliament later passed with a two-thirds majority. Do you think that the order put in place fifteen days earlier has now been restored?

Well, I’ve never abandoned the hope that one day the Opposition will also realise that this is not the time for party-political debates, and that we should unite our forces. I’d like to ask all Members of Parliament, regardless of party affiliation, to support the economy protection action plan, which aims to protect jobs and create new ones. I request this from them: let’s form the front line in preparation for our common battle, and together let’s declare that we shall create as many jobs as are destroyed by the virus. In this we need to be united.

It’s interesting that left-wing newspapers are also publishing articles by economists which carry headlines suggesting that Orbán and his team might be right in searching for an approach that doesn’t focus on handing out money.

I’d be happy to hand out money, but where is that money? I see that everybody, especially on the opposition side, is talking about some kind of money from the European Union. I can’t see a penny of that. Those claims are factually untrue: there’s no such thing as money for free. Money can be handed out, but sooner or later that money will have to be matched by production. If you’ve had it handed out to you up front, you’ll have to work for it later. But the world has never seen a community receiving money as a gift, without any work or effort, and then being free to hand it out. One can do this with debt, but in the end you’ll have to pay the price of that debt, and it will always cost you more than if you’d earnt it in the first place. In my life this is the rule that I’ve learnt.

Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.