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Vaccination in Hungary: scandals, misinformation, segregation

Budapest seeks to “rub nose” to Brussels with the help of Moscow and Beijing! Moreover, Hungary is taking a number of very dubious steps along the way!

Head of the Hungarian government, Viktor Orbán, has set himself the goal of making Hungary the first EU country to vaccinate 100% of its citizens against COVID-19 and achieve full immunisation coverage. The first such country in the world was Israel, which is way ahead of Hungary, however, it still has a chance to become the first country in the EU in terms of vaccination of its population.

The Prime Minister of Hungary hopes to “hunt several hares at once”. Firstly, such an achievement should lead to a significant increase in the popularity rating of V. Orbán. Secondly, it has become a trump card of Budapest in the framework of its difficult relations with the European Commission and other European institutions. For example, Brussels accuses V. Orban and the Fidesz party of pursuing an authoritarian policy and deviating from democratic standards. In response, Hungarian officials could ask Brussels: “Should the government be called undemocratic if is so concerned about the health of its citizens that it was the first in the EU to successfully complete the vaccination of the entire population?!”

Budapest’s first step: Hungarian politicians have accused European institutions of failing to purchase enough high-quality drugs, namely mRNA vaccines developed by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna.

In fact, European officials have reserved these vaccines in much more volumes than the EU objectively needs, however the supply of drugs will be gradual. The slow pace of delivering vaccines directly at the site is quite objective, as far the most powerful pharmaceutical companies cannot immediately meet the rampant demand. Instead, V. Orbán unreasonably demands the necessary amount of vaccines to be delivered to Hungary immediately.

Budapest’s second step: European institutions are accused of not equalizing distribution of vaccines across all EU member states, which in turn has led to a decline in the EU’s solidarity factor. According to Hungarian politicians, during the vaccine distribution, the European officials made every effort to provide the countries of Western and Northern Europe with it and paid less attention to the needs of Central and Eastern and Southern Europe. In Budapest’s interpretation, the Brussels bureaucrats ignored the needs of the states which formerly constituted a military-political union called the Warsaw Pact Organization.

That is, European officials were accused of discriminating former communist camp countries. According to Hungarian politicians, during the COVID-19 vaccination of EU citizens, it turned out that the vanished, invisible borders still exist.

In fact, amid the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, European officials first sent batches of vaccines to the regions with the largest outbreaks. Brussels later acknowledged the distortions in the distribution mechanism and developed a new principle according to which vaccines would be supplied proportionally to the population of the EU states. Measures have also been taken to expand production capacity in the context of maximizing support to European vaccine manufacturers.

Budapest’s third step: European institutions have been accused of failing to provide adequate logistical support for deliveries immediately as mRNA vaccines require low-temperature storage. For example, BioNTech/Pfizer should be transported at a temperature of -70C to -80C. In fact, European officials work side by side with pharmaceutical companies to set up a network of stationary refrigerators and increase production of special carriers. However, fast increase in the production of appropriate refrigeration equipment in a short time is impossible, which is similar to the situation with manufacturing of the vaccine.

Budapest’s fourth step: V. Orbán decides on the mass purchase of the Chinese SinoPharm (5 million doses) and the Russian Sputnik V (2 million doses) vaccines. Both drugs are much cheaper comparing to mRNA vaccines and do not require too specific conditions of transportation and storage. For example, the freeze-dried form of Sputnik V requires the temperature range from + 2C to + 8C. In addition, it is more important for both Beijing and Moscow to strengthen their international image by supplying the vaccine abroad than to vaccinate their own population. As a result, Russia supplies its drug to a number of Latin American countries at dumped prices, while China even sends free batches of vaccines to some countries in Africa and Asia.

Hungarian media widely covered the vaccination of politicians from the pro-government “Fidesz-KDNP” coalition and leading doctors with these vaccines, however, the insider information received the lightning-fast spread about their demonstrative vaccination with these vaccines while the actual fact is that they got Pfizer/BioNTech shot and publicly used placebo.

Hungary’s chief sanitary doctor and head of the National Public Health Center, Cecília Müller, also actively supports the Hungarian government’s position on the purchase of Russian and Chinese vaccines. At the same time, C. Müller actively criticizes the spectrum of efficiency of AstraZeneca (which, according to her, is ineffective for people over 60) and has high hopes for the new Russian Sputnik Light vaccine.

Budapest’s fifth step: the authorities seek to prevent a domestic political crisis, as far as opposition forces – the Democratic Coalition, the Hungarian Socialist Party, the Hungarian Liberal Party, the Green Party of Hungary (MZP), and the Dialogue for Hungary – opposed the purchase of Sputnik V and V. Orban’s arrangements with Moscow on launch of the production of the Russian vaccine in Hungary for domestic use and export to other states. In turn, ordinary citizens have taken to the streets to protest against vaccination with Chinese and Russian vaccines.

Public dissatisfaction is explained by the fact that Sputnik V has not passed the third stage of clinical trials and still has not got the European Medicines Agency’s certification. At the same time, there is no reliable information about the effectiveness and safety of Sputnik V, however Russia still promotes it throughout the world, neglecting the health of foreign customers, pursuing increase of its geopolitical reputation. Opposition groups and protesters also point out that Hungary’s pharmaceutical industry is one of the most developed in the world to say nothing of Europe, that is, they should focus on capacity-building for making mRNA vaccines. Instead, the production of vector vaccines, including Sputnik V, will not bring the latest technology to the country’s pharmaceutical plants.

In order to prevent a political crisis, Budapest (probably on Moscow’s advice) has decided to start vaccinating with the unpopular Russian vaccine from labour migrants (about 90,000 people), mostly seasonal workers from Serbia, Romania and Ukraine. In addition, vaccinations with the Russian drug will be mandatory for employees of large budget-raising companies (with a large number of employees), as well as for the elderly people who have many different chronic diseases and are at a high risk. That is, compulsory vaccination with Sputnik V is intended, basically, for those population groups that are de facto deprived of the right to choose or, at least, limited in their rights.

Thus, if we call a spade a spade, the Hungarian government intends to implement a segregation policy in its country during the implementation of an ambitious plan for total immunization of the population. Thus, the least protected population categories will be vaccinated with Russian or Chinese vaccines, those who are especially lucky will be able to use AstraZeneca, while those close to the authoritarian oligarchic regime of V. Orban will be gifted with mRNA vaccines.

Budapest’s sixth step: V. Orban (apparently also on Moscow’s advice) decided that, if mass production of Russian vaccines is launched in Hungary, the government will proceed to humanitarian supplies of Sputnik V to the Carpathian Basin, where Hungarian ethnic minorities compactly reside. At the same time, first of all, Russia encourages Hungary to use Sputnik V for free supplies to the Hungarian community living in the Zakarpattia region of Ukraine. The catch is only that following the completion of this hypothetical vaccination, members of the Hungarian minority in Zakarpattia will inevitably accuse the Ukrainian government of not taking proper care of its own population, unlike the authorities of neighboring Hungary and Russia. All this definitely will lead to a significant aggravation of the already damaged relations between Kyiv and Budapest. Instead, these developments are more than beneficial for Russia, which has been waging war against Ukraine for seven years.

Budapest’s seventh step: Hungary’s prime minister is doing his best to make the states of former communist camp area – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Balkans his allies in promoting the Russian vaccine. V. Orban overtly pursues a pro-Russian lobbying policy, rushing the Sputnik V vaccine to the markets of these states by all available means.

Well, Czech President Miloš Zeman has already called for Sputnik V purchase. However, in the Czech Republic, the president, prime minister, parliamentary coalition and intelligence services are different powerhouses, often adhering to different positions. This is exactly the case of the vaccination process.

In turn, Prime Minister of Slovakia Igor Matovič, bypassing the Foreign Ministry and the President, has unilaterally adopted a decision to purchase the drug in the amount of 2 million doses from Russia. In response, Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok called Sputnik V a geopolitical weapon and a means of waging a hybrid war between Russia and the EU. Disputes in the Slovak parliament over the Russian vaccine have left the current pro-government (fiercely pro-Western) parliamentary coalition on the brink of collapse, with the entire state standing on the eve of a political crisis. Definitely, it will be extremely beneficial for Russia if, as a result of a possible crisis, a new pro-Russian (and, consequently, corrupt) government comes to power in Slovakia, which will hearken to Moscow’s advice.

Thus, generally speaking, whatever the Hungarian government does in the fight against coronavirus, the consequences appear rather in the spread of unrest and discord within Hungary, as well as in the political battles over vaccination in a number of neighboring states, than in visible healthcare achievements.

And if Budapest’s grand goal is to increase the regional influence of the Land of the Crown of St. Stephen, it appears now that the state in the Northeast, with a double-headed eagle on its coat of arms, is receiving the biggest dividends from Orban’s government policy.

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