**This article is continuously updated with the latest developments.
After having refused to make information on the geographical spread of the new infections publicly available since 13 March, the Hungarian authorities made information on the geographical spread of the new infections publicly available.
**As of Wednesday (1 April), Hungary had 525 confirmed COVID-19 cases, while Budapest was the most-affected region with 232 cases. Authorities added 4 new deaths to the list that civil rights watchdogs had called illegal.**
On Tuesday (31 March), the coronavirus task force said “in order to provide credible information to the general public and the press,” the age, sex and underlying health conditions of the deceased will be shared, along with an infection breakdown by county. Hungarian authorities have refused to make information on the geographical spread of the new infections publicly available since 13 March.
The Hungarian Parliament approved new emergency powers on Monday (30 March) that will allow the ruling Fidesz party the right to rule by decree, without a set time limit, in a move that prompted an outcry from human rights groups.
On Friday (27 March), the government announced the imposition of a curfew starting Saturday (28 March) until 11 April.
Leaving residences will only be allowed for work and broadly defined basic needs, including groceries, going to drugstores, pharmacies, the hairdresser, using health services, veterinary visits, outdoor walks and running.
Everyone must keep 1.5m distance from strangers at all times, including on public transport. Those above 65 can only visit groceries stores, markets and pharmacies from 9-12 am, citizens below that age are only allowed in these establishments outside of these hours.
The task force tasked with tackling the spread of the virus so far does not see the need for imposing a curfew but is prepared to do so. “Perhaps, the time of this will come, but it will be preceded by very thorough calculations and modelling,” said Tibor Lakatos, task force chief.
EU alliance ‘weak’
“If they cannot help because they cannot, at least do not hinder the Hungarians in their defence. We want a strong Europe, but this alliance has its weaknesses, which is also evident during the epidemic,” said Orbán, dismissing “theoretical legal issues” regarding the proposed law that would allow the government to rule by decree until the emergency ends.
“We received help from China and the Turkic Council. This is the situation at the moment. Despite this, we remain EU members. This is our home, but we must see that this is not where help is coming from now,” he added.
As the outbreak worsens, the Hungarian parliament is considering a law that would keep the state of emergency decrees in force indefinitely until the end of the emergency.
Under the law, spreading “false fact or true facts distorted in a way” to “impede or thwart” the effectiveness of defence measures will be punishable to up to five years imprisonment.
The law would also increase penalties for people breaking quarantine ordered by authorities to up to eight years if such behaviour causes death and up to five years if committed in groups. Critics fear that allowing for decrees to be in force indefinitely would allow the government to be left unchecked.
Hungary’s PM announced a new set of economic measures on Wednesday (18 March) to help mitigate the impact of the virus, including a moratorium on principal and interest payments until the end of the year for all households and enterprises.
The government also announced sector-specific measures, such as in tourism, hospitality, and cultural services industries, promising to make labour market regulation more “flexible” to make it easier for “employers and employees” to agree.
“We know that the pandemic is not only threatening people’s lives, though that is the most important, but also endangers the work, the workplace,” said Orbán in a video posted on Facebook. The PM said that these are only the first measures, which will be followed by more, adding the government’s hope is that measures will protect jobs “because we learned in the past 10 years that if there is work, there is everything.”
Tax authorities are to exempt 81,480 SMEs from the flat-rate tax liability until June 30 and delay tax debts already incurred before 1 March until after the end of the state of emergency, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced on Monday (23 March).
Media service providers will also be tax-exempt due to loss of advertising revenue. Evictions and seizures are also suspended until after the end of the pandemic, and maternity benefits that end during the period are to be prolonged.
A falling forint
The markets have not reacted well to the announcements. The Hungarian forint continued to fall on Thursday (19 March) to historic lows, trading around 357.76 against the euro at 3:30 pm.
This represents a 5.6% depreciation compared to 338.64 at midnight on Sunday (15 March) prior to the announcement of border closures. The Budapest stock exchange also suffered losses, closing at -6.54% on Wednesday (18 March).
Information not publicly available
Unlike in many European states, Hungarian authorities are not making the information on the geographical spread of the new infections publicly available, making it hard to know where in the country the disease is spreading.
At Wednesday’s press briefing (18 March), chief medical officer Cecília Müller said the “virus can be, is already present anywhere in Hungary”, adding that “we have confirmed cases from the entire territory of the country that we have identified,” said Müller, stressing that “from everywhere, virtually all over the country, positive cases have been identified.”
State of emergency and closing of borders
Hungary declared a national state of emergency last Wednesday (11 March), ordering the shutting of universities, and banning indoor gatherings of more than 100 and outdoor events of more than 500 but stopped short of closing shops, restaurants, shopping malls and other businesses. Sporting events are being held behind close doors, while all public venues such as cinemas, theatres, libraries will be closed. After 3 pm only grocery stores, pharmacies, petrol stations and tobacco stores may remain open.
Referring to universities, Orbán said that “we cannot separate the tens of thousands of foreign students from the Hungarian students, that’s why we thought it best to stop all visits to those institutions.” After initially claiming that there is no reason to close down schools, on Friday evening (13 March) Orbán announced that primary and secondary education institutions will close from Monday (16 March) and continue education teaching online.
“We will close Hungary’s borders to passenger travel,” said PM Viktor Orbán addressing the parliament’s plenary on Monday (16 March), adding that only Hungarian citizens will be able to cross into the country from midnight that day.
Speaking of the closure of borders, the chief of the coronavirus task force Tibor Lakatos said that it won’t break families apart, clarifying that parents and spouses of Hungarian citizens with a resident permit or place of residence will be allowed to enter the country.
Medical profession under pressure
Medical professionals above 65, estimated to be about one-third of the workforce in case of general practitioners, have been withdrawn from active work requiring interactions with patients. “The government orders the minister of human resources to asses and register the data of those who have received and are currently participating full-time medical training,” in case of need, to involve them in managing the emergency, said Lakatos.
The government’s official website dedicated to the pandemic, koronavirus.gov.hu, was offline for about two hours on March 16 due to a flood of requests that overloaded the website’s capacity. The National Infocommunications Service Company, operator of critical IT networks of the Hungarian state, and National Cyber Defense Institute, are examining whether this has been a deliberate act, said Lakatos.
A link between illegal migration and COVID-19
Authorities announced the expulsion of two Iranian students on Friday (13 March) and a further 13 Iranians on Monday (16 March) who have been quarantined and prohibited reentry for 3 years to Hungary and the European Union. The students reportedly came out of their room in the hospital, complaining about the conditions, and did not respond to the staff’s call to go back.
At a teleconference call between EU leaders organised by Council President Charles Michel last Tuesday (10 March), Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán said there is a “clear link” between illegal migration and the coronavirus epidemic.
According to Orbán, many migrants come from or through Iran, which is one of the focal points of the infection, which is why Hungary has strengthened its border protection and temporarily closed transit zones. During his the weekly interview with Kossuth Rádió last Friday (13 March), Orbán said that “it’s no coincidence that the virus first showed up among Iranians,” AFP reported.
The Iranian students to be first diagnosed in Hungary entered the country legally, some by virtue of government-sponsored scholarships.