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The View From a Quarantined Hungary

Budapest's response to the coronavirus shows how important national sovereignty is in fighting a pandemic.

Hungarian police officers check cars at the Nickelsdorf-Hegyeshalom border crossing on the Austrian-Hungarian border on March 18, 2020. (Photo by ALEX HALADA/AFP via Getty Images)

Last Saturday dawned bright and clear in Felnémet, a small Hungarian village about two hours northeast of Budapest. The temperature had not quite caught up to the sudden prevalence of sunlight and birdsong, but the atmosphere was festive nonetheless.

The next day, March 15, was a national holiday commemorating Hungary’s 1848 revolution, and even the Friday announcement of school closings could not dim the mood. Locals garlanded a bridge with flowers and Hungarian flags before congregating at a nearby pub to exchange pleasantries. Other than a few aborted handshakes and cheek kisses, nothing seemed amiss. 

The air of unreality persisted into the following week, when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán decreed limits on public gatherings and a three p.m. curfew for all local businesses save supermarkets, pharmacies, and tobacco shops. At the time the school closings were announced, only 19 cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed within Hungary’s borders. By Tuesday morning, the official tally had reached 50. 

Before the announcements, the coronavirus outbreak was little more than background noise and fodder for idle speculation. A local water polo team had just returned from Italy and continued to practice at a nearby town’s only indoor pool. University students studying abroad in Milan were trapped under quarantine. Holiday plans were put on hold and international conferences in Budapest had been canceled. But that was when the problem seemed distant from everyday life. By Monday, people were rushing to grocery stores and markets to stock up on essentials. Masks started appearing on public buses and waiters were suddenly wearing surgical gloves. 

The Hungarian public may have been slow to grasp the severity of the crisis, but the government’s response has been fairly decisive, at least compared to many larger, wealthier countries. Hungary’s borders were closed without any hand wringing about xenophobia. While New York City dithered over school lunches, Hungary, a country of 10 million people with far fewer financial resources, closed schools and made stopgap arrangements for providing food to needy families. No one has been scolded for calling the disease the “Wuhan virus” or the “Chinese flu.” The WHO’s exhortations to avoid “stigmatizing language” have been mercifully ignored. The inane squabbles over vocabulary that take up so much oxygen in American politics are almost entirely unknown here. 

Not everything is going well. Widespread mistrust of government-run outlets and the scarcity of independent media have made it difficult to convey the severity of the outbreak and the need for social distancing. Hungarian social media is rife with criticism of government news accounts and information bulletins. The present crisis is a timely reminder to all Hungarians, Orbán included, that an independent press is needed to amplify and disseminate vital information in an emergency. 

In one important respect, however, the coronavirus outbreak has vindicated Orbán and his fellow travelers. In the midst of a genuine crisis, the nation-state is still the most important actor in international politics. European solidarity was cold comfort to the Italians when the European Union could not provide vital medical equipment. Hungary’s hastily reoccupied checkpoints at the Slovakian and Austrian frontiers are a reminder that national sovereignty still matters, even in the putatively borderless EU.

The European Union will survive the coronavirus, just as it survived Brexit, the refugee crisis of 2015, and the global financial collapse of the late aughts. But Europeans will undoubtedly remember that when it mattered most, national governments took the lead.

Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.

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