BUDAPEST / PRAGUE (Reuters) – Hungary’s hospitals are under “extraordinary” pressure from rising coronavirus infections, its surgeon general said on Wednesday, as the country became a hotspot in the third wave of a pandemic that has particularly affected Central Europe.
Like much of the region, Hungary managed to curb infections during the initial phase of the pandemic in March-April last year with swift and strict lockdown measures.
However, a new wave of infections that swept through the region in 2021 has seen Hungary this week overtake the Czech Republic as the country with the highest daily per capita COVID-19 deaths in the world, according to figures from Our World. in Data.
Experts have attributed this to the spread of the much more contagious virus variant first found in Britain, accounting for the majority of reported cases now and infecting entire families.
The region is also home to many large factories where remote work has not been possible and, this time, governments have been reluctant to quickly impose a lockdown, fearing another blow to their economies after last year’s recession.
While new infections in the Czech Republic and Slovakia have started to decline, Poland reported a record number of new cases just under 30,000 and the government considered sending patients to different regions to help hospitals cope.
He ordered theaters, shopping malls, hotels and cinemas closed last week as infections spiked, but more restrictions loom ahead of the Easter holidays, typically marked by crowded religious services in the deeply Catholic country.
In Hungary, a country with a population of nearly 10 million, a total of 18,952 people have died from the coronavirus.
“I ask that you do everything you can to avoid getting infected and avoid having to go to the hospital, as hospitals are struggling under an extraordinary burden,” Surgeon General Cecilia Muller said in a briefing.
Muller said some 500 volunteers, health students and trained health personnel have gone to help hospitals after the government issued a petition this week.
Earlier this month, some 4,000 medical workers left the public health system due to reforms initiated by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government, exacerbating the shortage of medical personnel for years.
On Wednesday, Tamas Sved, secretary of the Hungarian Medical Chamber, told the website hvg.hu that if new infections are not controlled by reducing social contact, Hungary could become the new synonym for the worst of the crisis.
“Without this, we could get to the point that in Europe it will be a bigger Hungarian city and no more Bergamo (in Italy) being cited as a tragic example,” he said.
VACCINES: RACE AGAINST TIME
Hungary, which leads the EU in vaccine imports and per capita vaccination rates according to data from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, has administered at least one dose of vaccine to 1.7 million people. But it is still not enough.
“For whatever reason, most of Eastern Europe has failed to fight the pandemic,” said sociologist Daniel Prokop, who has been tracking Czech behavior during the pandemic.
He said in an article this week that on-site work is more common in Central Europe due to the number of factories, including large automakers, located here. This has led to an increase in infections.
Lower incomes also mean that more people are forced to work, even if that means exposing themselves or others to contagion, he said. Governments in the region pay less for sick leave than in Western Europe.
After hospitalizations reached critical levels, the Czech Republic introduced a more severe lockdown on March 1 and implemented widespread testing at workplaces. Since then, he has seen some improvement in the number of cases.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis admitted mistakes after criticism that the government was slow to introduce restrictions in the fall, when figures soared earlier.
In Hungary, however, Prime Minister Orban is already discussing business options to reopen stores cautiously, even as cases increase. The government will decide soon the measures for Holy Week. All schools are in remote learning until April 7.
Reporting by Krisztina Than and Anita Komuves; Edited by Toby Chopra