Semi-Peripheral Vaccine Surrealism

April 2021 Hungary

Unlike the strictly age based vaccine rollout system in many countries, the Hungarian government introduced online vaccine registration. There were vague threats that only people who register can get a vaccine. Among the registered ones there seemed to be a vaguely age based order but since only ~40% of the population have registered, all people above 18 started getting their call-ups in April already.

The daily covid death rate in Hungary has long been the worst in Europe and until the double mutation in India, it was leading in the world.
At the same time the speed of vaccine rollout has long been far ahead of all EU states, closely following the US and the UK.

The reasons for this is, however, rather bittersweet. To amend the rather slow Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna rollout in the EU, the government ordered a huge amount of the Russian Sputnik V and the Chinese Sinopharm vaccines, before they got accredited by EU, UK or US regulators.
Apart from the worrisome absence of peer reviewed publications on Sinopharm, the concern arose in me that if the western countries issue vaccine passports of some sort, then by getting either Sinopharm or Sputnik V, I can get stuck behind a “vaccine iron curtain”. (Since I’m doing my PhD in the UK this would affect me quite a bit.)
(Sputnik V has been published in a peer reviewed paper and is probably on the way to getting accredited by the EU, but no one knows about the timeline.)

Because of this I asked my GP to let me know when any of the western ones are available. Last week a new system of vaccine appointment booking was introduced, but only for Sinopharm… My GP said they also can only give out Sinopharm for now and they don’t know when they’ll have anything else.
Later on an option for AstraZeneca appeared as well.

In the meantime Viktor Orbán had a personal vaccination plan which involved reaching 4 million first doses by the 1st of May, after which people with vaccine IDs (which they get after the first dose already) can enjoy indoor activities without masks. Looking at the still extreme death rates this seems to be a purely populist and very dangerous step.

On Thursday evening the 29th April, the number of vaccinated people reached only ~3.9 million, so the plan seemed to fail.

On Friday morning, Viktor Orbán made a radio announcement about a special one-day offer of exactly 100 000 miraculously appearing Pfizer vaccines. After this day it won’t be available for weeks, he said, because it will be given to people aged between 16–18. This was most likely a bluff, since the number of Pfizer vaccines arrived in the country is way more than the population in this age group, even if they get both doses.

Before 7am the booking system was already down for the overload of people wanting to get their Pfizer vaccine above anything else. As usual, from government officials we learned that a “foreign hacker attack” destroyed the system.
By the time I learned about this, around 11am, the website was still unreachable, but my friends told me that people queue in front of hospital vaccination points and get their vaccines without an appointment.

By noon, the news reported that one of the hospitals had already run out of Pfizer, and there are queues of thousands of people in front of hospitals all over the country. Somewhere the staff gives them water, and people surely don’t keep a 2 metre distance.

My partner and I happen to live close to one of the hospital vaccination points, so around 2pm, we decided to take our chances, even though we didn’t believe there’ll be anything left by the time we get there. But the weather was nice and we both had finished with our Zoom meetings for the day, so we grabbed a couple of books, two FFP2 masks and started walking in the sun to the nearest hospital.

A huge snake-like queue welcomed us, whose tail twisted until the end of the street by the side of the hospital building. We walked all the way to the end and started our 2.5 hour watch of standing in the queue or sitting down near the fence opposite the road in turns. We were given a serial number on a suspiciously looking piece of paper, so as everyone else, we were rather holding onto our place in the queue, just in case.

Since Hungarian hospitals have been ordered to be taken over by the military last November, we weren’t surprised to see the force there. Some 20 something guys in camouflage outfits gave us consent forms. Hospital staff were handing out plastic cups and water. As a consequence, every few minutes or so the military boys shouted out “anyone wants to go to the bathroom?” after which usually a group of 10 women followed them to the building.

After 2.5 hours of reading and sunbathing in the biggest crowd we’ve seen in more than a year, we finally got to the entrance. To mix things up, this time, instead of the military, a police man escorted us within a group of ~10 to the building. We got hand sanitized, administered and vaccinated relatively smoothly.

I told the doctor — whom I interrupted in opening a box of pizza — that despite being right handed I’d like to get it to my right arm, because I injured the left one a few days ago.
He told me with a slight sneer on his face:

— “Haha, the other one will be knocked out too then, that’s what this Chinese one is like…”

— “Good one!” — I replied sardonically, while silently hoping the second part was a joke.

He and his assistant both laughed.
Then, just to make sure, while also trying not to look completely humorless, I asked when I’ll get the paper certificate of getting Pfizer and stuff…
We all got it before we left, with the date of the second dose on it (although I have never seen the packaging from which the actual vaccine that landed in my arm came from).

Many were not as lucky as we were and people are on the edge, many of whom have relatives in the neighboring countries or elsewhere. They are reasonably worried about their prospects of visiting their families and friends or returning back to work.

This scene represents the Hungarian semi-peripheral atmosphere on so many levels. The shuttlecock politics of swinging between the west and the east. We have the best vaccine rollout in Europe and we don’t. The country operates under the rule of law on paper, but it doesn’t. Even this weird looking paper of a serial number tells a story of both structure and disorder.

Many people are boiling like frogs as their freedom is being bit by bit taken away and many have lost their lives because of bad organisation and a dying health care system.

But I got my Pfizer. Before I would have gotten it in the UK.

I do NLP research, code, sing and sometimes write blog posts.