Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made a desperate call for people to get vaccinated in an email message sent to millions of Hungarians, as new infections rose and virologists warned of an explosion of the fourth wave.
Everyone who hasn't already been vaccinated should do so because that is what can save us, Orban noted, adding the government has prepared Hungary for the fourth wave. Thanks to successful vaccine purchases, we can now vaccinate everyone who asks for it, he added.
Although pandemic figures remained relatively favourable during the summer, with the appearance of the Delta variant and the approach of autumn, the number of COVID-19 cases has started to rise in the last few weeks.
Hungarian authorities diagnosed 340 people with coronavirus infection over the three-day weekend ending on August 22 and six people died. The number of active infections stands at 7,713, while hospitals are treating 92 COVID-19 patients, 13 of whom need respiratory assistance.
These figures reflect a similar trend seen just a year ago, when new cases began to surge in September after a period of calm in the summer months, when it seemed Hungary has combatted the pandemic.
Hungary coped well during the first wave, but between September and June more than 30,000 Hungarians died of COVID-19. For weeks Hungary was ranked first globally in fatalities per inhabitants. The third wave of the pandemic was the deadliest, costing the lives of some 20,000 people. In late March, Hungary registered more than 9,000 new infections a day. At that time more than 12,000 people were treated in hospital, including 1,500 on ventilators.
Hungary introduced lockdown measures too late, leading to the spread of the virus in early autumn but also before the third wave in February. Decisions were postponed because the government was confident that the vaccination programme could help to avoid the third wave without restrictions, government sources told investigative news site Direkt36. Moreover, the Orban cabinet did not want to go against the opinion of the public, which supported reopening even in February, as surveys conducted by the government showed the lockdown was very unpopular.
In a September interview, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the success of the pandemic defence was measurable in the number of lives saved.
The government’s communication shifted dramatically as the pandemic was claiming over 100 lives per day, peaking at 263 in the first days of April.
Hospitals become overcrowded and in many cases due to capacity problems older patients did not even have a chance of being put on ventilators.
Hungarians were sealed off from the drama unfolding at hospitals as the government feared public backlashes from decisions to close down the economy too late, Direkt36 reported. Government officials denied that hospitals faced serious problem and instead, the focus shifted solely on promoting vaccines.
Capitalizing on its close ties to Russia and China, the Orban government became the first EU country to allow the emergency use of Eastern vaccines, Sputnik V and Sinopharm.
The vaccination rate in Hungary was the highest among EU countries in March and April. In the first days of May one out of five Hungarians received both shots and by the end of June half of over 18-year-olds were fully vaccinated. This meant that Hungary could reopen its economy before other European countries. The government has taken credit for that and the ensuing robust economic growth in Q2.
The vaccination drive has slowed considerably since and the country is now ranked in the middle among EU states with a 57% vaccination rate. There are 3mn adults yet to be vaccinated and experts warned that they could be vulnerable to the new Delta variant.
The government is not planning any lockdown measures as it would lead to a loss of popularity, but may be forced to reintroduce some form of restrictions again, epidemiologists warned.
The government lifted the mandatory mask mandate in early July, among other restrictive measures, after the number of people vaccinated reached 5.5mn. Experts say that this should be reintroduced indoors.
Despite these warnings, hundreds of thousands of people celebrated state foundation day on August 20 with hundreds of concerts and events between Thursday and Sunday, capped off by a spectacular fireworks display.
There is a fear that the mass events in September will lead to the explosion. Budapest will be the home of the week-long International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) that will see Pope Francis celebrate a mass on September 12.
The government is planning to make mask wearing compulsory at the event. Tens of thousands of foreign guests are expected at the world's largest nature exhibition, the World Hunting Expo at Budapest fairground Hungexpo, between September 25 and October 14.