Hungary awaits fourth pandemic wave hanging loose

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The Hungarian government does not plan to re-introduce lockdown measures although it openly awaits the arrival of the fourth wave in the coronavirus pandemic. The stringency of measures currently in place in Hungary is among the lowest in Europe, and Hungary is the country that has eased restrictions the most since the beginning of the summer. When comparing this loose attitude to the low number of new cases, we could not say Hungary really stands out. But the Delta variant keeps on spreading, and less than 60% of the population are vaccinated against coronavirus. Consequently, we should ponder whether the country will be able to avoid strict lockdown measures in the autumn, or we will only wish by then that at least some restrictions had been introduced by the end of August. Months will pass before these questions are answered, though.
vásárcsarnok budapest magyar

Experts agree that it is only a matter of time before the fourth wave in the pandemic hits Hungary. Some claim it started at the end of May, early June, only the most prominent statistics started to reflect the kick-off in early July. One thing is for certain: the fourth wave has already reached several countries in Europe, and that owing to high vaccination rates the pandemic does not claim as many lives as in the second and third waves.

We must not jump to conclusions before the autumn, though. The key issue in Hungary is whether the fourth wave will be as devastating as the third one, or a high number of COVID-19 cases will not overload the health care system and lead to thousands of deaths this time.

The Hungarian government is also ‘preparing’ for the fourth wave. Well, in rhetoric, not in terms of actions. They treat it as an avoidable fact of life but practically shrug it off, arguing that the vaccination rate is so high (under 60%) that despite the spread of coronavirus there will not be as many severe cases. Hence, no lockdown measures are required. Gergely Gulyás, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff said last Saturday that “there will be no restrictions for those that are vaccinated” against COVID-19. This may imply that some restrictions could be imposed on those that are not vaccinated.

All in all, the number of new cases is on the rise, but the cabinet plans no lockdown measures. Why? Because its whole defensive strategy relies on vaccinations. It keeps telling people it’s important to get their shots, but the message is apparently not getting through. Not that much effort is made in this respect.

There are both economic and political considerations behind this particular tactical approach. Although the subsequent waves of the pandemic had smaller and smaller impact on the economy, they all reduced economic activity to some extent. However, this could happen even without lockdown measures. Households could voluntarily cut spending if they see a surge in the number of new daily cases (this is what is currently taking place in the U.S.), and then we’ll have practically the same negative economic impact as lockdown measures would induce.

The main reason is most likely political. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party are facing an election in the spring 2022, which could easily be the toughest one for the PM. And lockdown measures are not popular, restrictions cost votes. So the cabinet leaves it up to the people to decide how they manage this pandemic. There are enough vaccines to go around, wearing face masks is not the end of the world, social distancing is pretty easy.

This strategy, however, carries risks, as the health care system could get overloaded with only about 60% of the population vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2. Consequently, we should expect vaccination incentives before any lockdown measure, although if the health care system cannot cope, the latter cannot be avoided either.

Hungary among the loosest countries

We have examined how loose Hungary is in the world in terms of restrictions in place to stem the spread of coronavirus. For that we used the Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker, a project that calculates a Stringency Index, a composite measure of nine of the response metrics.

The nine metrics used to calculate the Stringency Index are:

  • school closures;
  • workplace closures;
  • cancellation of public events;
  • restrictions on public gatherings;
  • closures of public transport;
  • stay-at-home requirements;
  • public information campaigns;
  • restrictions on internal movements; and
  • international travel controls.

These are rescaled to a value from 0 to 100 (100 = strictest). Of course, the Stringency Index cannot gauge how the restrictions are observed and enforced, yet it is the best and most precise metric of the stringency of anti-coronavirus measures, and the best base to compare countries in this respect.

According to data as of 23 August, Hungary is one of the countries in Europe with the loosest measures in place to stem the spread of coronavirus. Its current COVID-19 statistics are also among the more favourable ones.

Only Estonia tries to control the spread of the virus even less than Hungary in Europe (in terms of government responses to the pandemic). Lithuania and Slovenia are almost as aloof in this respect as Hungary is. The strictest measures are in place in western and southern Europe, including France, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Greece, Ireland and Austria.

Interestingly enough, the UK with a score of 43 points did not make it to the Top10, although the fourth wave with a surge in new cases hit them first. (It is also true, however, that fatality rates did not jump as much as during the previous waves, which is hopeful.)

Counties in a wait-and-see mode

Let’s take a look at the measures countries in Europe implemented to fend off the fourth wave. To get the picture we have compared the current Stringency Index scores with those on 1 June by which time most countries had already lifted previous lockdown measures.

We found that most countries have much looser restrictions in place as in early summer.

Hungary loosened restriction measures by 21 points since early June. Only the Netherlands and Italy relaxed lockdown rules more, but we should also note that Italy opened fully in early July when the Delta variant was not such a major concern, so this distorts the picture to some extent.

As you can see, most countries did not slam on the brakes and a proliferation of lockdown measures to stem the spread of the Delta variant is nowhere to be seen in Europe. Restrictions were implemented with great hesitancy last year, but then the reluctance did not stem from high vaccination rates therefore we can now declare that the wait-and-see attitude was the wrong choice. Some countries did introduce some restrictions, particularly France where new daily cases surged to around 25,000, making it the hardest-hit country in the fourth wave on the continent.

As regards the strategies countries in Europe will deploy this autumn, we have practically zero information, but the hope is that as high percentages of the populations are vaccinated, dramatic lockdown measures may be avoided.

Average stringency in Hungary so far

Whereas Hungary has practically no Covid-related restrictions in place at the moment, it was not always this relaxed about the pandemic. Its average score on the Stringency Index for the period between January 2020 and 23 August 2021 places it in the mid-range of this particular ranking.

Italy is on top with an average Stringency Index score of 65 points, way north of Hungary’s 52 points. Ireland, the UK, Germany, Greece and Portugal also applied high stringency on average in the period under review, whereas Estonia, Iceland, and Finland are on the bottom in this respect. Sweden, which was (wrongly) cited in Hungary as a country with an extremely loose management of the pandemic restriction wise, had a higher average score for the last 18 months or so than Hungary.

What you should know about this particular ranking and the average scores is that these make countries mixing iron-clad lockdowns with a total lack of restrictions (e.g. Hungary and the UK) appear just as stringent as countries that were rigorously maintaining a mid-level lockdown environment (e.g. Sweden that managed to avoid a full lockdown, but where the summers in 2020 and this year were not as free as for Hungarians).

Finland is unambiguously a success story where restrictions were kept at a low level (on average) and the death toll was low. Finland was great at the execution of measures that are not gauged by the Stringency Index, such as testing and isolation. Hungary is 2nd in the world with 3,121 deaths per one million population, whereas Finland is 129th with 183 deaths per one million population. Hungary has a population of 9.63 million versus Finland’s 5.5 million.

Hungary not on the loose end in relative terms

The current pandemic-related regulations in place may appear overly loose in Hungary, but if we compare these to the number of new daily cases, this high degree of relaxation may not be so unwarranted.

Comparing the Stringency Index score and standing of Hungary to the number of new daily confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country, the restrictions in effect cannot be labelled as overly loose.

There’s a problem with this, though. The government has no intention to make the restrictions any stricter, while the Delta variant is more contagious, daily cases are on the rise, various experts have already sounded the alarm and warned that people should wear face masks at least indoors, and even urged the cabinet to make mask-wearing mandatory again.

The spread of the virus will accelerate exponentially, and with extremely poor testing practices, no contact-tracing and no restrictions in place we will see only in retrospect if lockdown measures would have been necessary, or if this wait-and-see attitude and unrestricted daily life were worth it or not.

Policymakers need to manage epidemiological risks, economic costs, and potential political gains/losses all at once. With an election coming up and economic growth projected to exceed 6.0% this year, these issues are taken into consideration with different weights. But we let you guess which one of these three enjoys a priority and which comes last.

 

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