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Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Kossuth Radio programme “Good Morning Hungary”

Katalin Nagy: As in neighbouring countries, a special legal order is in force: border controls, compulsory quarantine, closure of universities and postponement of events. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Could the current precautionary measures be tightened further, and if so when?

In Hungary a special legal order has a different meaning from that in most European countries. Here it is a special situation regulated in the Constitution when normal constitutional principles and rules are effectively suspended or bypassed, and it is possible to implement measures which the gravity of the emergency demands, and which depart from the procedures which are usual in a democracy. It thus allows for the implementation of swift and immediate measures. This is perhaps unprecedented in our history. I don’t remember anything of the kind here in Hungary, and I’ve been a Member of Parliament for thirty years. But neither is it something which is often seen in other places around the world. I don’t want to be a doom monger, but, should the need arise, we could go as far as to place plants and factories under state control, and production facilities could be put at the service of the state. So this is somewhere between peacetime democracy and a state of war. On this we must proceed with caution – it’s no accident that civilised countries rarely resort to it. I’ve been thinking long and hard about when the time might come when these measures were no longer avoidable. But, seeing that in the majority of European countries the spread of the epidemic is unstoppable, I suggested to the Government that we take this decision. This is what has happened. Of course there are built-in “emergency brakes”, because this is, after all, a situation outside democracy, and the Government can only introduce it for two weeks. If we want to maintain it for longer, which I think we will have to, Parliament will have to approve it, and Parliament will have to extend it.

How long could this situation be maintained? And can we expect the rules to be tightened further?

A legal order bypassing the constitutional rules which allows for swift containment measures can be maintained over an extended period. The question is how long it will be needed for. Everyone wants to know how long this whole thing will last. We already know that what we’re talking about is a global pandemic. The World Health Organization evaluates epidemics emerging around the world, and it has raised this health emergency to the highest level, and has declared it a global pandemic. This is a global pandemic that originated in China, and for a while we were hoping that it might not appear in Europe. But then a very serious European epicentre emerged in Italy, from where it spread effectively to the whole of Europe. And so this has also become a European pandemic. Europe is part of that global pandemic. There are optimistic news reports claiming that in China it’s already over. That’s not true. The bad news is that while this hopeful approach is understandable, it’s not true, and the facts don’t support it. All that has happened in China is that the number of infections is lower than the number of recoveries. This means that more people are recovering than falling ill, and that they’ve moved past the peak of the epidemic. But this doesn’t mean it is over; because if we have to climb a hill, to return to our starting point we also have to climb down it. So returning to a normal state of affairs lasts at least as long as climbing up to the top of the hill. Therefore we must prepare for the fact that this is not yet over in China either. The world’s biggest problem is that this is an unknown virus, we have very little knowledge about it, and there’s no vaccine, no cure, no antidote; this is why everyone is filled with worry and fear. We are facing an unknown enemy. It follows from this that in our decisions we can only rely on scientific statements and experience. The experience is that in China this uphill stage lasted for as long as five or six months, and after that we must count on there being a downhill stage. So the truth is that we’re not talking about a week or two or a month or two, but in Europe, too, numbers will keep increasing for several months. This means that the number of infections will increase, and after that it will take us quite a few months to return to where we started from. So there’s no point in hoping or deluding ourselves into thinking that we can get over this thing within a week or two. It will last for many months, and so we must expect our lives to change. Over the next few months life won’t be the same, because measures must be enacted in order to contain the epidemic. The good news is that in such a situation the law in Hungary is able to vest the Government with powers to enact rapid and effective containment measures, and we shall not hesitate to use them.

However, if this thing carries on, will there be sufficient resources for border controls, or for the work of the authorities? Is the healthcare system prepared for this?

We need several forms of strength all at once. Naturally the most important is fortitude: you must not feel like you want to surrender, but you must try to contain the effect of the epidemic. We cannot escape it completely, and you can see that there are also infections in Hungary. Neither can we guarantee that the condition of one patient or another will not deteriorate. In many countries there have already been deaths. We would like to escape that, but the truth is that as we are facing an unknown epidemic, and so we cannot offer any kind of guarantee on that. So you need fortitude to prevent you surrendering to the unknown threat, and to fight it despite a lack of knowledge and precise understanding of its nature, and the lack of a cure for it. But what can we do in a situation like this? If we have no cure for it we must try to prevent its spread. We are developing the rules for this. In addition to this fortitude, this demands strength from public administration – or law enforcement services, to put it another way. We must close our borders with some of our neighbours, and people coming from certain countries will not be allowed to enter our territory. Hungarians returning from abroad will naturally be allowed to enter; where else could they go? This is their home, but they must be quarantined, with force if necessary: those who are unwilling to do this voluntarily must be compelled to do so by the police. Those who fail to comply with these rules – although I ask everyone to do so – must be made to do so, by force if necessary. This is because they won’t be harming themselves, but others. We also need strength in our healthcare system. I’d like to thank the nurses, doctors and disease control specialists who have been working so hard for weeks. There are enough of us, so the Hungarian state is able to mobilise as many healthcare workers as are needed to contain the epidemic. We also have all the necessary resources, and equipment of all kinds. To the extent that an infection can be rationally estimated, our material resources will be sufficient. Despite this, I have ordered the production and procurement of additional equipment and supplies, in preparation for an infection that is even more widespread than anticipated. Here there is no absolute limit other than common sense, but I believe that we must have reserves available to account for the possibility of a dramatic increase in the number of infections. We are prepared for that. And finally we need financial strength – which is also available. Neither today nor in the future will there be any financial obstacle to defence measures. This is about human lives, and they take priority over everything else. And of course discipline is needed, which has been in greater evidence than many people had expected. Of course one can read and hear all sorts of things online, and naturally people are uneasy and even worried; but beyond that it seems to me that on the whole the instructions of the Operational Group directing containment efforts are being followed in a disciplined and adult manner. All in all, I can say that so far the country has passed this test with flying colours. We’ve been through many crises together: I remember the red mud disaster, the floods, the financial crisis and migration. We’ve had many kinds of crisis, and in every crisis situation – at least when I’ve been in charge of crisis management – what I’ve seen is that when there is trouble in Hungary the people stand together, joint forces and excel themselves. So I believe that today we have the capacity for cooperation needed to contain the epidemic within limits. No one can say – let alone guarantee with any degree of certainty – what will happen later: whether there will be millions of infections in Italy and Germany, or what force will be needed to stop it at the borders, or at least screen for it or reduce it. All anyone, including myself, can guarantee is that we will do everything humanly possible to contain the epidemic – and perhaps even beyond that.

Universities have been closed. In the studio half an hour ago we had the President of the Hungarian Rectors’ Conference, who said that higher education institutions have been working on how to organise distance learning for two years. But this is the question: Why doesn’t the Government order the closure of schools? Or why doesn’t the Operational Group recommend that? Neighbouring countries have already done so.

We are observing developments in neighbouring countries, and we’re in contact with them. As we are facing an unknown phenomenon, exchanging experience and knowledge is key, especially with our neighbours. Both the Interior Minister and the Health Minister have been instructed to keep in daily contact with their Austrian and Slovenian counterparts, as infection from Italy could enter Hungary through those two countries. We deliberated at length over the closure of universities, and eventually decided to effectively quarantine them, because there are many foreign students. Our experience is that the epidemic has primarily been brought into Hungary by foreigners, and is spreading among foreigners. Most people in Hungary don’t know this, but we have tens of thousands of foreign students here. It is no coincidence that the outbreak started among Iranians, and as we cannot separate foreign students from Hungarian students, ordering the temporary closure of universities seemed rational. We thought long and hard about this, and the reason we haven’t closed schools is that our present state of knowledge suggests that the virus does not infect children, or passes through them without causing illness. In Hungary today it is not children who are at risk, but the elderly. Naturally one’s first thought is always for one’s children or grandchildren; we all feel that way – myself included. But now one’s second thought must be for the elderly. So at this point our children are not in danger. We will change our decision if we see any signs that the infection is also causing illness among children, but this is not the situation today. Today the situation is that the elderly are at risk, so now we must look after our parents and grandparents, and we must do everything we can to ensure that they avoid contact with others, thereby reducing the chances of infection. Today members of the global scientific community are saying that 60 to 80 per cent of people who are infected or have the virus go through them don’t suffer any ill effects and don’t even notice it. In other people the virus will cause illness, and the older the person and the poorer his or her health, the graver the consequences of the disease can be. So now we must protect our parents and grandparents. Naturally we must also look after our children, but for the time being children are not affected by this epidemic. Furthermore, if we close schools it would be for a period of several months, and so if we close schools it would spell the end of the school year. Teachers would have to be put on unpaid leave. We must accept that we wouldn’t be able to reopen schools in two weeks’ time. The countries which have now closed their schools won’t be able to reopen them soon, because in two or three weeks’ time the situation won’t be any better than it is now – in fact it will be worse, and the number of cases will increase. And it will be months before the number of recoveries starts exceeding the number of new infections. So if we close down schools, that will also be the end of the school year. This is a step we must take if children’s health is at stake, and we won’t hesitate for a second if there’s a risk of them falling ill. But I believe we should wait, and if it emerges that the virus has a variant which is also dangerous to children, then we will take immediate, decisive action. But this is not the situation at the moment.

Obviously this is having a great impact on the economy. Tourism experts are already saying that we must expect a huge decline in that sector. What measures can we expect?

The situation is much graver than people generally believe. We live in one place. As we don’t move around all the time and don’t leave our cities or home towns – or at least not often and not for long – we don’t stop to consider that the economy we are a part of is actually in constant movement. Therefore we don’t realise what it means when the economy becomes as immobile as we are. We’ll have to face immeasurably grave consequences. I had the privilege of meeting representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and I asked them to assess – with no illusions, if possible – the situation of their own businesses and sectors, and to submit a report to the Government within a month at the latest. In response to this, the Government will develop action plans, economy protection action plans, which could offer assistance and solutions to various sectors. The stalling of the economy will not affect every sector of the economy to the same degree. There are some, such as tourism and the airline industry, that are more dependent on movement; while there are others, like the food industry, which are less dependent on it. So the consequences will be different. Therefore one remedy is required in one sector, and an entirely different one in another. This will require huge efforts. We’ll have to make huge efforts and use the crank handle to restart the engine. We’ll have to reallocate very large sums of money. I think we’ll have to reconsider the entire budget for 2020, and also the 2021 budget, which is already in the planning phase. Local governments also adopted their budgets in February; they will also have to revise them. We’ll also have to revise the budgets of institutions. So we’ll have to prepare an economy protection action plan on a completely new basis which serves to restart an economy that has come to a halt, and a financial plan, a budget, that best serves it. Human life is the top priority. So we’re talking about money, the economy, we should think about tomorrow and the day after tomorrow; but right now let’s stay in the present. Here and now human lives are the top priority, and containment is the most important task. We must minimise the number of victims, and we must minimise the number of infections; this must be our goal. But somewhere in a backroom there are accountants and financial experts doing their calculations, and preparing plans for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.

People infected with the coronavirus have already been identified on the island of Lesbos. Sociologists say that crises can intensify one another. We can see the situation at the Greek-Turkish border, and what can be expected on the Balkans route. What is your opinion on this?

There’s no doubt that we’re engaged in a war on two fronts: on one front there is migration, and on the other the coronavirus epidemic. And as movement spreads the disease and increases the epidemic to a global scale, and migration is itself movement, there is a logical connection between the two things. But as Hungary has so far successfully defended itself against migration, we are also protected from infections potentially being brought into the country by migrants. We’re not letting in anyone, and we won’t be letting in anyone.

The transit zone has been temporarily closed.

We have closed it, although there are ever more proposals from Brussels bureaucrats about distribution of migrants among European countries. We have always rejected that idea, we have not taken part in this scheme, we have prevented it, and we will not change our position: we will continue to reject it. There are different conditions in different European countries. The situation in Hungary is that we still only have isolated cases. We planned our containment measures on the logic of distinguishing three phases. We’ve identified three phases of defence. The first phase is when there are isolated cases. We are in that stage now: the number of infections is less than twenty, and there is also one patient who has recovered. So to date the cases are individual and isolated. The situation is much graver when one or more clusters develop, and there are group outbreaks in identifiable locations. We’re not at that stage yet, but when we are we’ll have to adopt even more stringent measures. In a situation like that there is a folder we must open: it contains the so-called protocol, which states what we must do in such a situation. And the third phase is of mass infection and illness. At the moment we’re far from that, but quite a few European countries are already in it: the Germans, perhaps the French, but definitely the Italians. This is the third phase, when we will have to open another folder, and introduce even stronger defence measures. For the time being we’re in the stage of isolated cases, and we’re fighting to avoid moving into the phase of group outbreaks. I wouldn’t bet on us being able to prevent that happening, so in my view we will move from the phase of isolated cases to group outbreaks, and then we will see the beginning of the next phase of the struggle: fighting to prevent group outbreaks turning into mass infection. But now we’re strengthening the line of defence separating isolated individual cases from group outbreaks.

President Erdoğan still hasn’t closed the Greek-Turkish border, and it seems that he hasn’t manage to come to an agreement with leaders of the European Union. At the same time, after five years a very interesting situation has developed, as the double standards that we know so well have re-emerged: European Union bureaucrats are now voicing their approval for Greece defending its borders – even with force; when Hungary did the same in 2015, we were called everything under the sun – but not decent people.

We were decent people back then, but they didn’t want to admit it, or they called that into question. But we Hungarians knew full well that we are decent people, and that in a situation like this we do what we have to do. Back then, too, we said that it’s easy for someone in a safe geographical location by the Atlantic Ocean to lecture people living here at the gates of the Balkans, but we shouldn’t pay attention to them. So not only should we avoid getting into a war of words, but we should ignore what they say. No one should be telling us from the coast of the Atlantic what sort of policy we ought to be pursuing on Russia or on Turkey, and what we ought to be doing about migration: they’ve never seen anything like this in their own lives. And they never had the Soviet Union for a neighbour, they were never occupied by Turkish troops as we were in the Middle Ages, and they only ever saw migrants when we let them through. So my position is that I understand these idealistic statements which Western European leaders want to deliver to us – sometimes in the form of good advice, sometimes as somewhat patronising sermonising; but not only do I not respond to them, I even ignore them. This is because they live in a different world, in a different reality. I don’t give them advice on how to run the lives of people who are so rich that they don’t know what to do with their wealth. Living standards over there are so high compared with ours that they’re almost inconceivable for us; this is why we don’t give them advice on how to lead their lives. And we ask them to likewise refrain from giving us advice. Everyone should attend to their own affairs; they, for instance, should let us defend our own lives.

Yes, but there are opinions in Western Europe that perhaps children should be let in, and that this idea should be considered. So the approach that you were talking about hasn’t changed after all, even though everyone now seems to agree on the need for border protection.

Yes, no one is being stopped from letting anyone into their own countries, but there is no way they can let anyone into Hungary. Only we have the right to let anyone in. Because in the future, too, we Hungarians will decide who we live alongside, and on this we will not allow a say for anyone else – either European bureaucrats or foreign third countries. It is for the Hungarian people alone to make that decision. If the Hungarians decide to let in someone, they will be allowed in, but if we decide not to, they will remain outside. This is how it has been so far, and this is how it will remain. This is a Hungarian affair, this is our fate, our life, our country, and we shall not allow anyone else to use bad ideas, advice or instructions to destroy the way of life we have known up to now. We shall not allow anyone to destroy the results which we have achieved in ten years of hard work, which has helped the Hungarian economy back onto its feet. We don’t want to risk that. I think we can defend this position, I can defend it in Brussels: we have the legal means for that, and we have political means for that. We have not given in so far to Brussels’ wrong-headed migration policy, and neither will we do so in the future. Of course now in Western Europe, too, they have problems, because another migration flow from Africa has reached them. We’ve been more affected by flows from the East and the South, and not so much by migration from Africa. Now migration from former colonies has reached the former colonialist countries. Therefore the general attitude over there is beginning to change, because they’re no longer facing a theoretical problem, they’re no longer debating principles of human rights on paper: they’re being required to solve very definite, real-life situations in France, the Netherlands and Belgium. This is also true in countries – quite apart from Germany – which are only too eager to give advice to others. Now they have their own problems, and this will change their mentality.

Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.