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Coronavirus: Human rights alarm as Hungary seeks indefinite extension to state of emergency
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Hungarian MPs are considering a new bill which would increase the government’s powers during the coronavirus pandemic.
New legislation would allow Viktor Orban’s government to extend the state of emergency indefinitely, even if the spread of COVID-19 made it impossible to sit in Parliament.
But the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe has expressed concern over the new law.
Dunja Mijatovic wrote on Twitter that she believed the Hungarian parliament was preparing to grant “sweeping powers” to the government without any restrictions or time limits.
“Even in an emergency, it is necessary to observe the Constitution, ensure parliamentary and judicial scrutiny and [the] right to information,” she said.
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The European Commission told Euronews that it did not want to comment on the specific bill, but that any emergency measures should follow EU standards.
The European Union states that any emergency measures introduced in a member state, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, must be temporary, and freedom of the press must be maintained.
Civil rights groups, including Amnesty International Hungary and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, have argued that the bill does not meet the constitutional requirements for an emergency legal order.
French MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield added that Budapest should not give “carte blanche” to Orban and “weaken the safeguards of an already shattered democracy”.
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Delbos-Corfield also tweeted her incredulity that journalists in the country could potentially be imprisoned for sharing “false” information.
The new rules would also introduce prison sentences of up to five years for citizens who share false information related to the coronavirus, which could interfere with public health or create “confusion or unrest”.
Elections and referendums would also be postponed indefinitely during the emergency.
“This law [is] … further strengthening the role of the government at the expense of freedom of information,” Delbos-Corfield tweeted.
Orban’s government has previously faced criticism from independent media for withholding information and showing inconsistencies in managing the COVID-19 crisis.
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Opposition parties have also argued that the government could bypass Parliament with the new bill, which could give rises to abuses of power.
But spokesperson Zoltán Kovács said that attempts to portray the bill as a threat to the free media were “biased and irresponsible” and that “lives are at stake”.
“We will solve this crisis, even without you,” Orbán told opposition parties in parliament on Monday, adding that the extraordinary measures are necessary to protect public health and Hungary’s economy.
Hungary declared a state of emergency on March 11 following the spread of coronavirus.
A British citizen confirmed to have been infected with novel coronavirus in Hungary has died, the government website koronavirus.gov.hu said on Wednesday morning. This brings the number of victims to ten.
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The number of people confirmed to be infected with novel coronavirus has grown to 226, the website said.
It is a significant rise yet again, as yesterday the number of confirmed cases was 187.
Of the 226 confirmed cases, 212 are Hungarian, 10 are Iranian, 2 are British, one is Kazakh, and another one is Vietnamese, koronavirus.gov.info said.
85 are in quarantine, and the authorities have taken 6,817 samples.
So far, 21 people have recovered.
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The epidemic in Hungary is at the stage of transmissions in communities, the website said. Infected people can be found all over the country and anyone could be already infected, it added.
The opposition Democratic Coalition (DK) on Tuesday called on the government to make public the number of people already tested for novel coronavirus.
“At least two tests on the same person” are needed for a reliable result, DK’s spokesman Balázs Barkóczi told a press conference.
The general practice worldwide is to present statistics based on the number of people tested so far in a particular region rather than the number of tests carried out in a lab, he said. The Hungarian government’s official website, koronavirus.gov.hu, publishes the number of samples tested in accredited labs and not, as is customary around the world, the number of people tested, he added.
Barkóczi called it “outrageous” that, with “scandalously few tests” taken, the government is “doctoring numbers” and “spreading disinformation”.
Coronavirus Mass Screening: Is It Needed or Not?
There is a way for healthcare workers to find out whether patients have the coronavirus or not. The technology for the test is relatively easy, but a higher number of cases may lead to capacity problems in the laboratories. However, many countries are bulk-testing, such as South Korea, while neighboring Austria has also reached 15,613 tests as of today. The Hungarian government has so far explained the low number of coronavirus tests carried out in the country, by saying that mass testing may not be effective. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) said at a press conference on Wednesday, that countries should test, isolate the positive cases, treat them, and find their contacts, but their Hungarian office leader said that mass testing in Hungary would make no sense. ANALYSIS.
The Spanish government, which has carried out about 30,000 screenings so far, admitted on Wednesday that the slowness of screening, which is key to controlling the coronavirus, has played a major role in the disease’s spread in the country.
As of now, the NNK has tested a total of 3,007 samples in an accredited laboratory. This roughly means that – if we are not counting that several people have been tested two or three times, on average, 176 samples are tested daily in Hungary since the first confirmed cases in the country. In comparison, the daily capacity of South Korea, who is using fast, bulk-scale medical tests to screen as many people as possible, is around 11,000 tests per day. But we do not have to go far, as Austria has also tested only 15,613 people in total.
Although the conditions were much stricter in the recent past for screening, Chief Medical Officer Cecilia Müller announced this week that the testing protocol will be changed and the coronavirus test will be performed on hospitalized patients with severe, acute respiratory tract infections, and pneumonia, if the symptoms are not caused by any particular condition. So far, a coronavirus test has been performed if a patient with an acute respiratory tract infection had at least one instance of sudden fever of over 38°C, shortness of breath, coughing, plus, in the 14 days prior to the appearance of symptoms, they traveled to an area most infected with the new coronavirus.
So why isn’t Hungary testing more people? The reasons are scientific, economical, logistical, and probably political as well. As there is no vaccine or specific treatment yet, early detection of infection is essential in containing the epidemic, for which a laboratory test, the RT-PCR test, provides the most reliable method.
The so-called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a procedure to reproduce the genetic material (DNA), in a given sample so that it can be more easily tested. Once a sample arrives at the lab, researchers extract its nucleic acid, which holds the virus genome. Then, researchers can amplify certain regions of the genome by using a technique known as reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction. This, in effect, gives researchers a large sample that they can then compare to the new coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2.
However, in spite of a negative result, the patient may become ill shortly afterwards. Supporting the Hungarian government’s stance on tests, according to a February study from the Radiological Society of North America, the test showed only 59% accuracy.
PCR tests also require proper equipment and expertise and takes hours to determine whether a sample contains coronavirus. With a large number of cases, this can easily lead to capacity problems, meaning that there will be too many patients to be tested for infection in a timely manner.
According to state news agency MTI, in an interview with public broadcaster Kossuth Radio today, Ledia Lazeri, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) country office, also said that it would be illogical to screen the entire population of Hungary against the novel coronavirus.
Lazeri said tests should be done only on people showing symptoms and those who have come into contact with infected people. According to her, the latest figures showed that the Hungarian authorities were doing their job and had been able to identify new cases and carry out tests when necessary.
WHO is in daily contact with the Human Resources Ministry and the National Center for Public Health, and information is being shared, with WHO offering practical advice and monitoring the Hungarian government’s measures.
The World Health Organization held a press conference on the coronavirus two days ago, where Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus gave a speech. He stated that WHO is listening to those countries asking for aid whose healthcare systems are on the verge of collapse. He added that WHO is in constant contact with national governments and other organizations to assist them in the event of an outbreak.
He set a positive example with South Korea, where the epidemic had spread strongly a month ago, but has now been successfully curbed. People are kept informed of developments, innovative testing strategies have been developed, and testing capacity has been significantly increased. Patients are also quarantined in designated facilities, not in hospitals or at home.
The world’s most prestigious scientific journal, Nature, in its latest editorial, has also called on world governments to follow WHO recommendations and test people. They wrote that testing should be extended to as many people as possible, isolated cases should be identified, their relationships discovered, and they should be tested to reach each virus carrier as
you can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is.