I sat fidgeting nervously in my chair as I clutched my consent form in my hand. About a dozen other people waited along with me at the neighborhood GP office – the day had finally arrived. I was not anxious about the vaccine; I was mostly preoccupied with whether I would be lucky enough to have someone that spoke English in there. “Elsö vakcina.” I thought, attempting to calm my nerves a bit – it worked. I grinned broadly under my mask, genuinely impressed with my silent Hungarian. Suddenly, the nurse appeared and beckoned me into the treatment room. As I entered, I prepared to break out my most eloquent Hungarian greeting, but a male doctor in the room beat me to it: “Hello, do you have your consent form?”
When I arrived in Hungary in July 2020, it was hard to tell that the Covid-19 pandemic was sweeping the globe as I strolled along the picturesque streets of Budapest. Masks were required indoors but everything was open, and it was business as usual, a far cry from many countries at that time. Hungary was one of the best places to be in the EU last summer, but the situation deteriorated rapidly by the fall with the influx of students heading back to school.
In September, the semester began like any other but for the mandatory masks when inside university buildings. By November, cases had risen so exponentially that the government mandated the closure of universities and for studies to continue online, among several other strict lockdown measures to try and curb the spread of the virus: bars and nightclubs were closed, restaurants were closed to in-person patrons, public spaces like museums and sports facilities were shuttered, gatherings restricted. A curfew was implemented with the promise of steep fines for violations, all residents needed to be indoors from 20-5 every day barring a work exemption or being within 500 meters of your residence to walk your dog. The staff at hospitals were overwhelmed, and the government enlisted the assistance of the military to fill clerical roles and free up trained medical professionals to treat the sick, while medical students were called into service for their very first assignment as doctors. It was a discouraging time – people were getting sick, the death toll rose frighteningly, many had lost jobs, and everyone was frustrated with cabin fever that was months in the making. Hopelessness set in as the last of in-person venues were ordered closed and only grocery stores were allowed to remain open with shopping times determined by age.
The vaccine rollout began. Prioritizing healthcare workers, the first shots were administered at the end of December and quickly picked up steam. The Government of Hungary was determined to end the crisis as quickly as possible, ignoring the grumbling from Brussels over their decision to approve both the Sinopharm (China) and Sputnik (Russia) vaccines along with the others to avoid running into the supply issues that had plagued the rest of the Union. As university students continued to attend class in our pyjamas from home, we sighed about finishing the year online and joked about Facebook posts enquiring about borrowing dogs. And the vaccine rollout continued.
Once the general population began receiving their first doses, a dramatic drop in the infection rate began to manifest. Eleven thousand new cases a day, then eight thousand a day, five thousand, two thousand… as we hit each milestone for the number of people vaccinated, the government slowly began to lift restrictions: Hairdressers reopened and then restaurant patios, the curfew hour was drawn back, masks were no longer required on the street. There was now a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
Today, most of the restrictions have been entirely lifted with two caveats – masks are still mandatory in all indoor spaces, and you must have a vaccination card to enter most venues. With only 153 new infections in the country at last count, they are taking no chances in risking a 4th wave of Covid-19 – as such, the government has implemented a system of plasticized, wallet size cards with a QR code on them indicating that you have been vaccinated. The European Union has established a digital “vaccine passport” program to allow the free movement of people once again throughout the Union if they have proof of immunity to the virus. Naturally, Hungary is well ahead of the game in having their very own digital immunity certificate already.
Now, the weather is getting nice. Here in Debrecen, people are relaxed and making plans, strolling in the streets again with their ice cream, going to museums and swimming pools; it is looking like the winter of Covid-19 is over, and this summer is shaping up to be a lot more like last.