On a Monday morning in mid-April, more than 100 workers from a Budapest hospital gathered outside with signs, songs and speeches to defend their director, who had just been sacked by Hungary’s Ministry of Human Resources. Under the smokescreen offered by the COVID-19 pandemic, prime minister Victor Orbán has declared a state of emergency in which all demonstrations are banned. But workers gathered anyway.
According to the ministry, the sacked director, Péter Cserháti, had not made enough beds available at the rehabilitative hospital – known by its Hungarian acronym OORI – in case of a surge in coronavirus-related hospitalisations. As part of its pandemic response, the Hungarian government of authoritarian prime minister Victor Orbán ordered that 50 percent of the country’s hospital beds be emptied.
The directive has been criticised widely, in particular by the Hungarian Medical Chamber, which said it was “incomprehensible that uninfected patients would be sacrificed” and that the move would do nothing to fight the pandemic. According to medical experts, more testing and tracing is needed. Yet Hungary continues to have one of the lowest testing rates in Europe, accounting for its relatively low official infection rate – which serves government messaging well.
OORI is the only advanced rehabilitation centre in Hungary, dealing with those who might be recovering from a stroke or spinal-cord injury. These patients require high-level professional care. If the government directive had been implemented strictly, it would have resulted in patients being left to their own devices in their homes or, if lucky, those of their families.
Orbán justified the mass evacuation of hospital beds using the rhetoric of war that has become all-too-common during this pandemic, saying: “We are right in the middle of a large military-like operation, which is causing discomfort ... We hope for the best but prepare for the worst”.
According to OORI’s staff, and Cserháti himself, the hospital complied with the government directive by making 233 beds available. But instead of sending patients home without care, Cserháti transferred 60 patients needing critical rehabilitation into an external facility. So he wasn’t sacked for refusing a government directive: he was punished for prioritising the ongoing care of OORI’s patients.
In Orbán’s Hungary, even small acts of defiance like this are not tolerated. Intolerance to any dissent has been the norm in Hungary for some time. Since Orbán’s hard-right nationalist Fidesz party won the 2010 general election with a two-thirds supermajority, parliament has been turned into a rubber stamp, ratifying any regressive law Fidesz and its far-right coalition partners cook up.
Fidesz’s rule is synonymous with the demonisation of Orbán’s political enemies, attacks on workers’ conditions and ability to organise, and a heightening of racist propaganda and acts of violence, which reached a peak during the migrant crisis of 2015-16. Progressive forces have been marginalised while far-right political organisations such as Jobbik, now the second-largest party in Hungarian parliament, have benefited.
At the end of March, the authoritarian trend escalated with the passing of the Coronavirus Act, a law with no expiration date and which allows Orbán to rule by decree. Disturbingly, anyone caught publishing “false information” about the coronavirus – including criticising the government’s measures in handling the pandemic – can be jailed for up to five years.
Many commentators have compared the new law to Hitler’s Enabling Act of 1933, which abolished parliamentary democracy. For Adam Fabry, author of a recent book on Hungary’s political economy, Orbán’s “enabling act” is the most explicit example of governments worldwide using the pandemic to pass measures that favour the ruling classes and deepen social inequality.
Fabry writes via email that Orbán’s new laws are a culmination of authoritarian and neoliberal policies pursued by the regime for the past decade. “The passing of the enabling act means the de facto end of parliamentary democracy in Hungary”, he says. While the law theoretically can be overturned by parliament, Fidesz’s supermajority makes it unlikely.
Hungarian journalists are spooked by the new law. Orbán has a history of censorship and attacking press freedoms, while supporting media channels that promote the government line. Recently, a think tank researcher close to the government “jokingly” called for journalists to be arrested after the law was passed.
Attacking press freedoms may be the tip of the iceberg. Attila Antal, senior lecturer at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and an editor of the journal Eszmélet (Consciousness), tells Red Flag that Orbán is using the pretext of the pandemic to wage a political war. “It is a very depressing situation”, he says. “The Orbán regime wants to achieve all its political goals – actions against transgender people, privatisation of universities, neoliberalisation of the health care system, making it impossible for opposition parties and opposition municipalities to challenge him. [These goals] would take a considerable amount of time to achieve in a ‘normal’ state of affairs.”
The day after the Coronavirus Act was passed, Orbán’s deputy – from an ultraconservative Christian party – introduced an omnibus bill containing 57 law changes, including the removal of independent power and funding to municipalities, and a ban on gender reassignment and the forcing of trans people to have the gender they were assigned at birth.
Clearly, attacking trans rights, repressing political opposition and curtailing press freedom have nothing to do with combating COVID-19’s spread. Since its election in 2010, these have been ongoing battles for the Orbán regime – one that Fabry labels “authoritarian–ethnicist neoliberalism”.
Fabry, in his Political economy of Hungary, writes that authoritarianism, ethnicism and neoliberalism – three central elements of Orbán’s regime – were “hardwired into the backbone of the Hungarian state” when the Fidesz-dominated parliament approved a new constitution in 2011. Among other changes, the new constitution legitimises the anti-Semitic, Nazi-collaborationist Horthy regime (which ruled the country between 1920 and 1944); includes Christian references to God and “traditional family values”; and, remarkably, “constitutionalises” neoliberal measures such as enforcing balanced budgets, limiting public spending, as well as making homelessness a criminal offence.
Orbán’s pandemic strategy is a case study in his government’s commitment to repression and neoliberalism. Antal calls it the “neoliberal path to crisis management”: with long-term patients shifted to their homes in the middle of the crisis, the total number of hospital beds is reduced. Antal predicts that when the health crisis subsides, “these beds will no longer be returned to state funded hospitals”.
Agnes, a Budapest-based activist with the group Szolidaritás a válságban (“Solidarity in the crisis”) agrees. “Many Hungarians wonder if the pandemic was just an excuse to get rid of terminally ill patients whose treatment is expensive for public hospitals”, she says. For Fabry, it’s “a neoliberal dream, putting into practice one of the oldest, falsest and most offensive tropes of the neoliberal critique of a socialised health system – that it ‘takes too much care’ of citizens”.
Orbán has also overseen the increasing militarisation of Hungarian society. Camouflage-clad soldiers now patrol Budapest’s streets and, as Antal and others have noted, during this crisis they’ve also paid visits to hospitals and large companies. In one example, a group of soldiers “checked in” at a drug company, enquiring how they might help with the transport of supplies. The soldiers’ seemingly benign concern for logistics belies the new power of the military, which includes the ability to move patients out of hospitals and override decisions made by hospital staff. The deputy editor of the weekly HVG, Hungary’s equivalent of the Economist magazine, has even wondered “whether the military itself will take over the management of business and whether it goes beyond fighting the pandemic.”
Students, workers and the poor have resisted Orbán’s rule at every step. Struggle has included student campaigns against the defunding of higher education, a “million-strong” movement for press freedom and, most recently, protests against changes to the country’s labour law, which force workers into up to 400 hours of overtime a year. Yet these movements have ultimately been defeated.
According to Fabry, one reason for this is that the official social democratic and liberal opposition has been discredited by their own implementation of neoliberalism in the period of transition from state-controlled capitalism to free-market capitalism from 1989 onwards. Indeed, while voicing concern at Orbán’s Coronavirus Act for not including a sunset clause, they voted for the bill anyway, capitulating to the idea that the crisis requires these measures.
The European Union’s champions see it as a bulwark against Orbán’s brand of so-called populism – but its criticism has been meek. The EU has supplied Hungary’s government with €5.6 billion in extra funding. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen expressed “concern” with Orbán’s new power. But that concern has so far amounted to a statement of condemnation so vague that it didn’t even mention Hungary or Orbán by name – it just said that European “values” should be upheld. In a show of irony and mockery, Hungary signed the statement.
Outside the official opposition, some grassroots organising is happening at the level of mutual aid. For example, Szolidaritás a válságban has been working with the trade union Vasas to provide much-needed masks to essential workers, as well as homes for students kicked out of their university dorms when those institutions went into lockdown.
Orbán’s state of emergency shouldn’t be read as merely a response to the pandemic. The pandemic has unleashed one of the largest crises of global capitalism since the Great Depression. As Támas Krausz, also an editor of Eszmélet journal, tells Red Flag, Orbán’s Coronavirus Act is about preparing for the “management” of the looming crisis, which will result in the government “crushing social resistance – that is why he has expanded the authority of the instruments of repression”. He believes that Orbán’s “quasi-corporatist regime will only be dismantled through external economic pressures or a popular uprising”. Antal agrees. “I am not convinced that the Orbán regime could be displaced by parliamentary means even before the pandemic”, he says.
As the crisis in Hungarian society and globally deepens, the small but brave gathering of 100 workers at OORI – defying the protest ban, defending a health care system under attack, standing up for democracy – offers a glimpse at how Hungarian workers and the poor could start to chip away at the Orbán monolith.
Rob Narai also contributed to this article.