Coronavirus pandemic is the deadliest in Hungary in the entire world

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A total of 26,000 people have died of coronavirus-related diseases in Hungary since the outbreak last spring. With that Hungary overtakes Czechia in terms of COVID-19 deaths per one million population. It’s official folks, the pandemic dealt the largest blow in the world to Hungary population wise. Although methodological issues make comparing the data difficult, the fact that the Hungarian cabinet gauges the success to human lives, it will not be in a position to call this a glorious management of the pandemic and keep a straight face.
hősök tere budapest koronavírus

The latest data means that out of 370 people living in Hungary, one is a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. And we’re strictly talking about cases that were registered as COVID-19 deaths. It is up to the Central Statistical Office (KSH) to shed light on all the others that did not die of coronavirus but because of coronavirus.

This many fatalities is a regional characteristic. Hungary, Czechia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Slovakia and Slovenia are in the Top 10 in the ranking of countries with the highest number of deaths per one million people.

(In accordance with with international practice, we have omitted low-population countries. Gibraltar, with a population of less than 34,000, would be still ahead of Hungary and San Marino, also with about 34,000 inhabitants, would be 4th.)

Hungary’s top position has to do with various factors:

  • the general health status of the Hungarian population
  • the government responding to epidemiological developments with ever greater delay and with ever lighter restrictions
  • methodological factors

Sick society

A not-negligible percentage of the Hungarian population battles with chronic diseases that are a great risk factor when it comes to SARS-CoV-2. According to a KSH analysis published last October, 30% of Hungarians have hypertension, nearly 13% have high cholesterol and 9% are treated for diabetes. Chronic diseases are often present at once.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, 48% of the population admitted they had a chronic disease, or something that they had been struggling with for over six months or would like have for at least that long. 87% of those diagnosed with a chronic diseases take medication for their illness too.

The data imply that largely four million Hungarians are in the group of the most vulnerable people, based on either their age or their health condition. Bad health condition is a common factor in the region that justifies labelling it as one of the key reasons behind the high COVID-19 mortality.

Ever greater delays in the management of the pandemic

If you had a feeling that the reaction time of the government to developments in the pandemic kept growing with time, it’s not a coincidence. In the spring of 2020, the pandemic hit Hungary relatively late compared to the rest of the world, so when Europe locked down at once in panic, Hungary was in a more fortunate situation.

The ‘second wave’ in the autumn arrived ‘without delay’, and the cabinet’s response came later. This year, the rapid spread of B.1.1.7, a.k.a. the UK variant caused an ever more belated answer by authorities when it came to protection measures. Health experts agree that even if the health care system remained under the official top capacity, the treatment of people in serious condition (not just those with COVID-19, mind you) met with capacity constraints, worsening their chances of survival.

In respect of the management of the pandemic, a new factor emerged this year that made the health care situation graver than it should have been, namely that the government failed to implement stringent lockdown measures that would have put the crimp in the spread of the virus fast.

The turnaround is easy to spot if you have an ear for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s remarks. Before B.1.1.7 he said: “Everyone can calm down. If you catch this disease, we will heal you.” And that “the success of our defense can be measured in the human lives that have been saved.”

Yet, in the third wave he already assessed that due to the spread of the UK variant the pandemic can no longer be stopped only slowed down therefore the only solution is vaccination.

As for the latter remark we need to make four observations for the sake of clarity:

  • Several countries successfully stymied the pandemic even after they were hit by B.1.1.7, and they achieved it by rigorous lockdown measures. It is simply not true that the spread of the virus can only be slowed down.
  • Orbán’s explanation misses an important linkage. If the pandemic can indeed be only slowed down, why can’t it be done more efficiently via more draconian measures?
  • Orbán started to rely this heavily on vaccines several weeks before this strategy could have promised a great outcome, in view of international examples.
  • The new approach unambiguously shows that the government is cognizant of the correlation between the easing of curbs and a protracted pandemic trajectory. However, it takes into consideration both health and economic aspects. At the moment it seems that the cabinet uses its greater elbowroom created by an apparently retreating pandemic to ease restrictions in an effort to boost economic growth.

The impact is illustrated by a simple, yet spectacular chart by Gergely Röst, research fellow in mathematics at the University of Szeged:

grost
Source: Gergely Röst

We should note that this hybrid target system of how the pandemic is managed is not Hungary specific. Besides considerations for people’s lives and the health care system, this system puts great emphasis on (assumed) economic costs, the waning patience of the population and the will to remain a popular player on the stage of politics. (And let’s not forget that Orbán wants to win another term at the election due in the spring of 2020.)

When it comes to the stop-and-go strategy deployed by the politicians driven by vote-maximisation in Europe’s mass democracies we find numerous examples of belated lockdown measures and premature easing of restrictions, only the degrees of these differ.

Methodological issues

The high daily COVID-19 death figures in Hungary over the past few weeks raised quite a few brows globally, and we are once again faced with the question: How comparable mortality statistics really are, and in view of these are Hungary’s death figures really that bad?

May we put in a good word for Hungary?

  1. Firstly, the methodology used to record COVID-19 deaths varies by country. Hungary’s system is among the more rigorous ones. If there was a uniform methodology, the rankings would be different.
  2. Secondly, excess mortality (i.e. the growth in the number of deaths in the pandemic over a ‘normal’ period, usually the average of the previous five years) does not show such a dramatic picture, and we find several countries in Europe with worse excess mortality statistics.

Both of these considerations cast a more favourable light on Hungary’s first place in terms of COVID-19 deaths per population, but not enough to alter our opinion on how the cabinet has been coping with this pandemic:

  • It is evident that the official number of COVID-19 deaths is not the actual number, and this assumption is underpinned also by excess mortality data. It is a common phenomenon at the peaks in the pandemic that some of the fatalities did not have official test results that would have put them in the COVID-19 death category. In these periods there are thousands of people in hospitals only on the suspicion of coronavirus infection and many die before they get the COVID-19 tag. In other words, the way Hungary registers coronavirus-related deaths in practice may not be as stringent as it likes to emphasise. Hence comparison with other countries is not such a farfetched or inaccurate as the government wants to portray.
  • These comparisons that definitely need some tweaking do not even include the figures of the third wave, while it is this exactly this period that played the key role in Hungary dethroning Czechia on this tragic stage. While the epidemic curve has started to flatten, Hungary reported the highest number of COVID-19 deaths per population in the world even over the last week due to the slow and effete lockdown measures.

In what else is Hungary the worst in the world?

 It leads the ranking of the highest number of COVID-19 deaths per week per one million people.

It has the highest percentage of deaths per active cases.

210422active

It has the third-highest ratio of deaths relative to the number of closed cases.

210422closed

Cover photo: Arpad Kurucz/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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