Hungarian media and health experts seek more COVID-19 data

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By JUSTIN SPIKE

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) – As coronavirus infections and deaths skyrocket in Hungary, journalists and public health professionals across the country are asking the government for more detailed data on the outbreak, with some experts saying greater transparency could increase late vaccination rates.

Information is often hard to come by in this country of more than 9 million people, where infection rates have broken records and where daily deaths per capita are among the highest in the world.

Although Hungary has obtained doses of the vaccine from China and Russia in addition to those provided by the European Union, nearly a third of its adults have still not received a single injection. This reluctance is something, according to immunologist Andras Falus, which can be partly attributed to official communications that the pandemic is “extremely poor, inconsistent and utterly incapable of sustaining confidence.”

“A significant proportion of the population no longer believes when they receive real data, or resigns themselves to not paying attention to the data because they almost have a visceral impression that it is inconsistent and unreliable,” said Falus, professor emeritus at Semmelweis University in Budapest.

The government’s official coronavirus website on Friday reported 166 daily deaths, 6,884 new infections and 6,939 virus-infected patients treated in hospitals, including 573 on ventilators.

While governments in many countries like the US and others in the EU publish detailed online dashboards showing trends in the pandemic through interactive maps, graphs and other data, the site Hungary’s web does not present a geographic breakdown of data or visualizations showing increases or decreases in indicators.

Illes Szurovecz of the Hungarian news site 444.hu says the information released by the conservative government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban does not give a clear picture of the development of the epidemic and is opaque and difficult to follow.

“There is a lot of things we don’t know,” Szurovecz said. “If there were more detailed data, people would be better able to judge the severity of the pandemic and how dangerous the virus is. … Doctors in different parts of the country would be better able to compare their results and care could be improved.

Instead of more comprehensive data from official channels, Szurovecz and his colleagues follow the few numbers released by the government and create detailed data visualizations on trends in the pandemic. Without it, he said, “it would be virtually impossible to look back to Hungary today and see how the pandemic unfolded.”

In the absence of official information on the situation of the hospitals, many journalists have tried to report from inside the COVID-19 departments to get a clearer picture.

But the Hungarian government has banned journalists from entering medical facilities to report on the pandemic and banned medical staff from giving interviews, which journalists say made it impossible to report on the worsening conditions. , creating a false image of the gravity of the situation.

Experts and journalists have asked for regional and municipal breakdowns of infections, deaths and vaccination rates, as well as information from individual hospitals on the number of patients in intensive care units and how many have been vaccinated and with which. vaccines.

This type of information could be used to formulate localized responses to outbreaks and determine where vaccination campaigns should focus their attention, said Falus, the immunologist.

“If there had been more data (…) the responses would have been much more effective,” he said. “We could have known which cities and counties had particularly virulent infections.”

The Hungarian government has defended its data practices, saying in an email that it “is leading by example in communicating epidemiological data on a daily basis.”

“This is one of the reasons for the cooperation of the population, the successful control of the disease and the fact that we are the first in the EU in terms of booster vaccination,” a government spokesperson wrote. , adding that criticism of his response to the pandemic was “politically”. motivated. “

Yet last month the Hungarian National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information called on the government to release data on infections at the municipal level to mayors, writing that local leaders and the public “need know the numbers in order to make informed decisions on how to protect yourself against the pandemic.

Similar problems were reported earlier in the pandemic in the Czech Republic, where mayors said they lacked details on the number of people infected in their communities that have hampered mitigation efforts like the distribution of medical equipment. Individual protection.

These issues were finally resolved at the end of last year.

Confidence in official statistics has also been an issue in Russia, where some experts have criticized official data on COVID-19 infections and deaths provided by the state coronavirus task force, arguing that the figures reported were probably underestimated.

Data analysts have pointed to inconsistencies in Russia’s virus statistics that they say suggest manipulation. As the task force reported more than 9.9 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 287,180 deaths as of Friday – the highest death toll in Europe to date – a report released last week by the national statistics agency Rosstat put the total number of deaths linked to the virus between April 2020 and October 2021 at more than 537,000, almost double the official toll.

In Hungary, journalists and experts have often taken matters into their own hands in an attempt to obtain more detailed information, despite government efforts to withhold the data.

After the government denied an access to information request earlier this year, news site 444.hu filed a complaint for detailed figures on daily hospitalizations, deaths and the number of people treated. in hospital intensive care units during previous outbreaks.

A court ruled in November that the data had been illegally withheld, ordering its release.

Scott Griffen, deputy director of the Austria-based International Press Institute, said his group “continues to condemn the Hungarian government’s efforts to block media access to information about the pandemic.”

The retention of this data was “fully in line with Orban’s policy of controlling the message, restricting public debate and hampering the ability of independent media to do their jobs,” Griffen said.

The Hungarian government has argued that testing for the virus is an ineffective way to control the pandemic and that only mass vaccination can save lives. He also argues that the country’s high official death rate is the result of broader criteria for attributing deaths to COVID-19.

During comments in the Hungarian parliament this week, an opposition lawmaker asked Orban why Hungary’s COVID-19 death rate is so much higher than that of some of its neighbors.

“Anyone who says more people die in Hungary than elsewhere is also saying that our doctors are doing a worse job,” Orban said, “and I will defend them against your accusations.”

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Associated Press editors Dasha Litvinova in Moscow and Karel Janicek in Prague, Czech Republic contributed.

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Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic



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