Katalin Nagy: For the past couple of days the number of new infections has been above three hundred. While experts expected it to emerge later, it seems that the second wave of the COVID pandemic is upon us. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. What is the Government’s task now? I’m also asking this because those who in April were worried about so many hospital beds having to be freed up are now worrying about whether there will be enough free hospital beds if there’s a surge in the spread of the virus.
Good morning. There are always those who are given to worrying; this is true in a family, and we shouldn’t be surprised if we also see this at a national scale. What’s important is that there are also those who take action. One must strike a balance between worry and action. We owe a debt of gratitude to Minister Kásler and Minister Pintér, because after the victory in the first wave they didn’t sit on their hands, but said that there would be a second wave and decided to immediately start preparing for it. And this is what they’ve been occupied with throughout the entire summer. Therefore we haven’t disbanded the Operational Group, but we’ve put them to work. And so, to employ military terminology, I could say that we’re waiting for the second wave of the virus armed to the teeth. Now we’re wiser than we were before, partly because now we have experience, whereas in March we were simply finding our way in the dark, not knowing what kind of virus we were dealing with and where it originated from. We didn’t know how to handle it. Now we have several months’ experience behind us. We also have a national consultation, and our government’s concept and philosophy is that one can never be intelligent enough on one’s own. It feels good to think that one can be, but the facts repeatedly disprove this. And so it’s good that as many people as possible are saying as much as they can and meeting each other as much as possible, and that we can create as many points of agreement as possible. As important as it is that the Government must be capable of action, in addition to this the defence operation – the success of defence – depends on whether people agree with, accept and support the measures. The national consultation is of great assistance. The numbers are already very high: 1.7 million to 1.8 million people have sent back completed questionnaires, which is something unprecedented in Europe. Western European prime ministers are always surprised when we speak about this, because I say that yes, 1.8 million people have sat down in their kitchens – husbands, wives and children – and have taken out the Government’s questionnaire ; and instead of muttering some curse, they’ve decided to take a look at it and find out what it’s about. And then they commit some time to taking part in collective decision-making. This gives the country and the Government great strength.
Yes, but what now is the Government’s task? The experts say that while the average age of those infected in the first wave was 64, now if we look at the first phase of new infections we see that the average age is 31. We can see, however, that the number of people being hospitalised has not grown in proportion with the number of infections. At the same time the experts say that in four weeks’ time the average age will certainly be higher than 31. So there is the fear that older people will eventually be affected.
One can recover from illness, but one can never come back from death. So as older people are most at risk we must continue to protect them, and I consider this to be the most important task. Coming a close second is the creation of the conditions necessary for the operation of schools, so that we look after our children. And immediately following this is the third task, which is that the economy should not only remain operational, but that we should be able to stimulate the economy – because if we have to shut down the economy again then we’ll all find ourselves in a very difficult situation. So these are the three tasks that we face. The responsibility of young people has now increased. What you’ve said in complicated terms about average ages means that many young people have contracted the virus. In summer young people spend time together, and they’ve passed it on to one another. What’s happened is exactly what would have happened to us: say thirty years ago in my case, and around ten years ago in yours. One could see this coming: with the beginning of summer, there are consequences as young people get out and about. But it’s autumn now. So we must respectfully ask young people to adapt to this situation. This is a serious matter as, after all, the lives of elderly people are in their hands. If young people are undisciplined, if they’re unable or unwilling to take part in the collective defence operation, they’ll be creating problems; not for themselves, first and foremost, because they will recover, but for the elderly. So the lives of parents and grandparents are in their children’s hands, primarily in their hands. Therefore I appeal to young people to kindly observe the few rules that there are – and there aren’t many of them.
The other day Professor Merkely said that this pandemic could be dealt with and put behind us within four or five weeks if people just observed these simple rules. But returning to what I said earlier, will there be enough hospital beds if the situation requires it?
We’ve developed extensive capacities and carried out drills. This spring there was a major debate – perhaps you remember it – about whether hospital beds should be vacated, how many, and how it should be done. Perhaps those who served in the army will understand this more easily, but I keep saying that it’s good to have weapons in the arsenal and full kit bags; but every now and then they must be unpacked, and the contents tested. Every now and then we must test our rifles on the shooting range. In the spring the Hungarian healthcare system was tested – a test which showed us precisely what we must do, even in the worst scenario imaginable. We know what will happen in which hospital, down to the last bed. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that we know each ventilator by name, where each one is, and where they should be taken if there are problems. Indeed we’ve built up our own manufacturing capacities. It will be impossible for us to suffer from any shortage affecting others internationally, because we can manufacture everything we need – except a vaccine, which is the most important thing, and which will bring the final solution. But as I see it we’ll have to wait for that. There’s a global race in progress, but at the moment I can’t see any reassuring news.
Experts say that we’ve carried out around 440,000 tests during the pandemic. Some experts and opposition politicians say that far more tests should be carried out. There was even one idea – perhaps floated by the Democratic Union of Teachers before the start of the school year – that all pupils and students should be continuously tested on a daily basis. Given that this would affect 1.2 million people, I don’t know what they were thinking; but there was such a proposal.
When trouble knocks on our door and we’re unable to repel the attack it’s understandable that all sorts of ideas start to emerge. Everyone comes up with a good idea. Testing is one of those. Everyone has an idea about how testing should be done – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s important not to panic. International organisations have an established practice. I hear all sorts of things, but at the end of the day, we must make a decision: I look up the WHO protocol – the advice and views of the World Health Organization, which incorporate the knowledge of a great many countries – and we follow that protocol. To date we’ve conducted testing according to the international standards, and we’ll continue to do so. And neither should we downplay our own success. Naturally the whole world is in trouble, and Hungary is a part of that, with hundreds of people in Hungary dying of this disease; but we shouldn’t downplay the scale of our performance by international standards. It’s good for us to change this or that, but let’s not forget that Hungary has defended itself more successfully than anywhere else in the whole of Europe. That is what I believe. So we should be careful about changing things, in case we create a situation that is worse than the one we’ve managed to arrive at so far. What I look at first and foremost is the number of deaths. Hungary measures the success of its defence operation in human lives. And, as I see it, in that respect we’ve won the first battle. In Sweden – which has roughly the same population, I think – the death rate is ten times that of Hungary’s: there it stands at around six thousand. I look at the figures for Spain and France, and see that in countries that are wealthier than us the disease is claiming more victims than in Hungary. If this is the case, in order to avoid unexpected negative consequences we must be very careful about which element of our established defence system we change. I feel that we have a good, compact system – all the way from general practitioners, disease detection and contact tracing and testing, to workplace practices and rules applicable to the elderly. In combination all these form a complete defence system which has worked so far. Naturally the perfect scenario would be no victims at all, and no one falling ill, but that’s not how the world works. Anyway, we have a compact system. We should think twice – or more – before reforming it or deciding on any changes, in case we unintentionally join the club of countries that have performed much worse than us. Let’s rejoice in the fact that, alongside some other Central European countries, we are fighting well. Let’s not open up a gap in our defences.
The travel restrictions necessitated by the worsening pandemic situation entered into force on 1 September. People coming from abroad can only enter in exceptional circumstances, and most foreigners arriving at the border are not allowed to enter Hungary. The Government is planning to maintain these border restrictions for about four weeks, after which the situation will be reviewed. But you’ve made exceptions for people coming from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland who have booked accommodation. And the arrangement is reciprocal: if Hungarians want to go to Prague, say, and they’ve booked their accommodation, they’ll be able to do so. One test will be enough. The European Union, however, says that this is discrimination, and has written to the Hungarian government. What’s Hungary’s response to this?
I understand the reasoning of the Europeans – or the European Union, the Brussels bureaucrats – and I don’t think it’s unjustified. At the end of the day, that’s part of their job. But they must understand that these four countries have created very close cooperation on disease control: we regularly consult one another, we know one another, and we know who is doing what. Each of us is quite safe within our own borders, and also in terms of the other three V4 countries’ defence operations. It’s no accident that these countries are successful. Their numbers are good. We know what they’re doing, and so it’s easier to cooperate with them than with, say, faraway countries on the shores of the Atlantic – where the numbers are worse, and we don’t even understand precisely what they’re doing. The Swedes aren’t even trying to defend themselves. So what I’m saying is that we must develop relations with each country according to the extent of our knowledge about their disease control measures. There’s no doubt that our most thorough knowledge is about the countries of the V4. Austria is another country that we know a great deal about, and we consult with them a great deal. But as far as they’re concerned I’d rather wait. Allow me to say something about the border restrictions. In Hungary there’s a debate about whether to defend ourselves everywhere in the country or close our borders. This isn’t a particularly intelligent debate, because it’s not an “either-or” question: the virus is already inside our borders. We must slow down, curb and suppress its spread within Hungary. At the same time, we must also sever its supply lines. This is why we’ve had to introduce border closures. Naturally we must continue our lives, so there will be exceptions. There is still through traffic, cross-border commuting for those working on the other side, and entry for people coming here on business. People are allowed to cross the border in connection with sporting, cultural and diplomatic relations and events, subject to appropriate safety measures. We’re not completely hidebound isolationists; we’ve introduced a regulated, normal and carefully considered new system. So we’ve replaced System A with System B. I’ll be attending a Cabinet meeting today, after this interview. We’ll be further refining the details in order to as soon as possible reach a point at which – as I’d put it – we have the maximum possible freedom, alongside all the important and necessary restrictions. It’s not so easy to define that point, because it also concerns rules relating to the minutiae of daily life; but highly competent teams are working to define the most reasonable extent of restrictions that is necessary at this point in time.
But if, after all, the European Union says that this is discrimination, because the Czechs can enter but not the French, say, they could launch infringement proceedings against Hungary. We could argue that the EU and Brussels said that they’d develop a protocol for such a scenario, but didn’t say when – just that they’d think about it for a little longer. We’d say that these decisions needed to be made and these measures needed to be introduced now. But this argument would do us no good.
Well, in politics it’s not only important to listen to as many people as possible before taking a decision, but it’s also important to have self-confidence. And now they can say whatever they like: in all modesty, I can say that in a few days’ time they’ll be doing the same as us. How many times have we seen this? This was what happened with migration, wasn’t it? This was what happened in economic policy, and this was what happened with the pandemic. They attacked us, criticised us; and then after a while they copied what we did. They won’t be able to contain the pandemic unless they introduce completely new procedures at their borders. They’ll follow the Hungarian example, and then this whole issue will be taken off the agenda.
We’ve already mentioned the start of the school year, which raised a great many dilemmas. It’s still true that if developments demand it we must make changes, and we won’t be able to continue conventional teaching in the school system – in elementary and secondary schools. What’s the Government’s position on this? How many children carrying the infection will make it necessary to say that we must stop here and return to online teaching?
Let’s look at how this played out in the spring. As safety was the top priority, we adopted a general rule that was applicable to all schools. I think this was an understandable – and perhaps correct – decision, because you should build two or three lines of defence when you’re up against an unknown enemy. From what I see now, however, there are settlements where the virus has appeared, and others where it hasn’t – and therefore we don’t need to apply a general rule. This is why we’ve developed a protocol for schools, given powers to school principals, and once more given the central authority the power to suspend conventional teaching. We will examine each individual case, and if we see that infection in a school is so high that it’s better to close the school and move over to online teaching, then that’s what we’ll do. But it doesn’t follow from this that the same should be true for a village or small town which has never had a child with coronavirus infection. So now our defence in schools will be more flexible, finer-grained and better adjusted to real life than it was in the spring. I repeat: we implemented a strict, rigid, uniform defence operation – but it was justified, because back then we didn’t know exactly what we were fighting against. Now we know that a part of our education system can work in one way, another part in another way, and a third part in yet another way. What’s certain is that however modern the term “online teaching” may sound, it’s not as good as teachers interacting with our children face to face. Because learning isn’t simply about amassing information that can be electronically absorbed: it’s about the formation of character, upbringing, togetherness, good behaviour, the act of explaining, and deeper understanding. And this means that our teachers must be able to be together with our pupils and students. Incidentally, in such turbulent times – when sometimes teachers had to do things one way, and sometimes another – I’m grateful to them for having adapted so rapidly. In the circumstances they’ve done an excellent job. I ask them to appreciate that the country greatly values their work, and to continue to do what they’ve been doing: showing devotion to our children and doing all they can to meet them in person as much as possible. As far as I’m concerned, teachers are courageous. In March there was more panic and fear, because they didn’t know what the health implications of catching this virus might be. Now they know more, and as I see it they’re braver; I think this is the right word. When there are conditions in which conventional teaching can be continued, they’re not insisting on abandoning it. This will always necessitate individual decisions, however. We’ve developed a system for this, and there’s a protocol which they’ve received. This will succeed if we work together, if we cooperate.
On 1 July doctors and healthcare workers were paid a lump-sum bonus in recognition of the hard work they did. Now, in September, the education ministry will show its gratitude to small settlements and for the work of teachers there who have more work to do when dealing with multiply disadvantaged children in disadvantaged regions. Is the Government planning to continue this kind of recognition, if and when new social groups or professional groups need and deserve it? Will the Government thank them for their work?
Well, this decision also took me by surprise. The Minister used his own ministerial power to adopt it. In his estimation the Ministry’s budget was able to accommodate it. I congratulate him on this, because I believe that he made a good decision. I was surprised, but pleasantly so, because this leads us back to an old debate. The debate dates back to 1990, or even earlier. We were very young back then – like youths in poetry. In the roundtable negotiations we were ranged against the communists, discussing how to drive them out of here, and how to win freedom. Back then we already had task forces, and we still had parties such as the MDF and the SZDSZ. We Fidesz politicians worked together with their experts, discussing the fact that in this country there are fundamentally disadvantaged small settlements, which perhaps it wouldn’t be fair to describe as having Roma-majority populations, but in a great many of which there are large Roma minorities. In such settlements the tasks and challenges in the work required of teachers or doctors are not the same as those in, say, a school or doctor’s surgery in Budapest’s fifth district. Already back then, in the nineties, we saw that unless we did something, teachers and healthcare workers wouldn’t rush to apply for such jobs: they wouldn’t rush to move to a small village on the edge of the country, somewhere in Borsod, the Nyírség or Baranya County. Already back then we were pondering how we could convince society that we should use some kind of multiplier for the wages of people taking such jobs – not as the Minister has done now, with a one-off payment, but as part of the system. Let’s say that, in order to assist the integration of people and children living in disadvantaged small settlements, there should be some special quota, some calculation method, and so on. That was thirty years ago, and I think that to this day we’ve failed to adopt the decision on this matter that we should have adopted. There were major internal debates about the justification for introducing such a scheme in that instance, when we didn’t have it elsewhere. How should it be precisely defined? Now the Minister has partly opened this can of worms. But he’s given people money, he was right to do so, and those who’ve received it are happy. But this is not a systemic solution, and we must return to this in the coming months.
This week there was a strategic forum in Bled, attended primarily by the leaders of Central European and Southern European countries. You also took part in this discussion. In your first contribution you said that Europe is in trouble. Do both halves of Europe see this? And do they see what role and task Central Europe could have in resolving this problem?
Of course they see it, but right now one feels strange talking about this, because everyone’s energies are focused on the virus, its health implications, the protection of the elderly, the start of the school year and the protection of the economy. In times of pandemic one’s focus on such strategic issues is not particularly strong or sharp. So I’m cautious in talking about it, because I don’t think that such thoughts will fall on fertile soil: right now people are occupied with other concerns, and such thoughts will not take root. But now that you’ve ask me, let me just say that fifteen years ago, say, if one looked to see where investments had come from in the previous year across the entire global economy, one would see – and I’m not talking about Europe now, but the global economy – that 81 per cent of the world’s total investments had come from the West, and only around 18 per cent from the East. Fifteen years have gone by, and now 40 per cent of total investments come from the West and 58 per cent from the East.
The figures have almost reversed.
Well, of course. And the trend is absolutely clear. A major change is taking place in the world related to the place in the world of the West, Westerners, the Western world, Europe – and within that Central Europe. We can see that we’re in the midst of a major process of transformation. Understanding this, adapting to it, and developing national strategies in response to it is intellectually the most beautiful part of my job – and the most difficult. I spend several hours every day coming to terms with these trends and analysing them, consulting with specialists who are dealing with this, developing responses – and not countermeasures – at European and Hungarian levels. A great deal of my time is taken up with this, which is something that people see nothing of, because it’s not related to the disease control defence operation. But this is a very adrenalising task. Now Europe is still unable to tell what its position will be in ten years’ time. I remember in 2012 reading a study written in Brussels by an EU research institute that regularly publishes them. Incidentally, in that 2012 study I also found a claim from Brussels, stating that migration is a good thing and must be supported. That was in 2012! The migration crisis broke out in 2015. So in 2015 I knew which drawer to look in to find the study in which Brussels experts described what was happening right then as a good thing. Anyway, it was essentially an economic study. And in 2012 Brussels wrote that Europe’s contribution to total global production would fall to around 15 to 17 per cent by 2050. It’s now 2020, and here we are at that level. Every process is happening much faster, and Europe’s retreat is much faster than it was earlier. Now the reality is that the big boys must find a pan-European answer. So this matter won’t be resolved by Hungary. It will have to be resolved by others: by Germany; by the British, who did give an answer when they left the EU, judging us a hopeless cause; or by France. So they will have to answer these strategic questions. We can adapt to this, we can take part in it, but we’re not the ones creating the trade winds. There’s one thing we can do, and that’s our homework. And Central Europe is in very good shape. As I look at the numbers, and see the performance of the Polish economy, I would venture the strategic comment that in ten years’ time we’ll be surprised to find that in Europe Poland will be the new Germany.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.