Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Mária Radio
20 April 2020
Milán Lukovits: I’d like to extend a very warm welcome to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán here in Mária Radio’s studio in Gogol utca.
Good afternoon to your listeners.
It’s a great honour to welcome you here. First of all, as a father, a grandfather and a working person, during this pandemic you’ve surely had a lot of personal experiences – both positive and negative experiences – as people tend to do in times of crisis. Could you tell us something about a positive experience or solution which would give people strength in this situation, or a strategy for fighting against a negative phenomenon which you’ve experienced personally?
If I had that kind of wisdom to share with the listeners, then I’d definitely be in a different occupation, and I wouldn’t be fulfilling my duties as prime minister. Because the work of a prime minister differs from the work of other people in the sense that almost every fibre of my being must be focused on action; and I’m expressly forbidden from giving people advice, as in Hungary people become very suspicious when politics oversteps a certain boundary. So people expect us to deal with matters, and to deal with them well if possible, but not to interfere too much in their lives. People want to hear advice, but they don’t expect to hear it from us, from politicians. So I’m very cautious about where, when and how I share with voters those experiences of mine which lie outside my professional capacity. So when doing this in today’s conversation, I’ll try to show as much restraint as possible. Anyway, I’m glad to have received this invitation, and I thank you for it. Here outside I’ve just met Tamás Szabó, a former fellow MP. This was a pleasant experience, indeed a heart-warming feeling, because the meeting I’ve just come from was about drafting a text to commemorate the formation of the first Parliament in 1990. And I’m happy to see that behind Mária Radio there is a person who has very long experience – of historically important value – of how over the past thirty years Hungary has arrived at where we are now. So this is a radio station which I feel does not float above me, but which is very much a part of everyday life, as people are involved in its creation who were caught up in the whirlwind of politics thirty years ago – just as I was. As for observations, if you’ll allow me, these are what I’d rather speak about. A prime minister’s work is carried out in two locations: in his office, and among people. The ratio done in each location is dictated by needs and the current situation. The ratios have now been reversed, because now I spend a lot of time meeting people: almost as much – or perhaps sometimes even more – than I do during a campaign. This is because being prepared for a healthcare crisis necessitates a great number of personal meetings, consultations and supervisory activities. Therefore I’m meeting hundreds of people who don’t belong to the world of politics in the classic sense. I’m meeting members of the clergy, but more often doctors, nurses and patients – including many elderly people. And even though the study of national character is treacherous terrain, it seems to me that this adversity is doing some good, bringing some good with it for Hungarians. I’m talking about the short term now, rather than the long term. Because there are some countries and peoples who tend to show the better side of their character in darker rather than sunnier times; and I suspect that we number among those peoples. So if one speaks to a Hungarian when trouble is all around us, and one speaks to that Hungarian when everything is going well, one finds them to be completely different – even though in fact they’re the same person. And in times of trouble Hungarians are somehow more open, more understanding, more helpful and – perhaps this is the right word – less aloof, softer hearted. When things are going well, when they’re successful, when the engine’s running smoothly, then I tend to see a somehow harder version of self-confidence in Hungarian life; but when trouble strikes us, then suddenly hearts open up more easily. I’ve experienced this a great deal with doctors and nurses, but particularly with elderly people; because let’s not forget that in the current situation they’re the ones who are threatened by truly great problems and dangers. None of the Hungarian victims of the virus have been under the age of 40: every one of them has been older than that, and typically those who’ve been taken by the disease have been over 65. And I’ve observed in myself that now that I’m not able to visit my parents, I want to visit them much more often than I usually do. So I want to visit them much more often than I would in normal circumstances, but I realise that this isn’t the right thing to do and that I can’t visit them. So I either quickly call them, or shout to them over the fence. But if, for example, one’s parents are approaching their eighties – and my grandmother is now coming up to one hundred – then the right thing to do would be for me to visit them every day. In normal circumstances it wouldn’t occur to me, but, unlike earlier, now every day when I review what I’ve done well and what I’ve done badly I think to myself, “Oh no, I haven’t called them again today, and I haven’t looked in on them.” I believe that in all our lives the current crisis has strengthened and nourished our feeling of duty towards our parents.
Mária Radio is a companion for very many elderly people, especially those who are alone, or elderly couples. So our listeners are drawn from various age groups and occupations, but it’s sure that Mária Radio plays this important role for elderly people living alone. There’s no doubt that the older generation are glad that in this period the solidarity between generations is strengthening, and we’re sure that the majority of our listeners greatly appreciate the fact that the entire country is showing its concern for them. So as we don’t deal with politics, for that very reason I’d like to ask questions which have a slightly more personal dimension; but naturally I understand the limits placed on your statements. So what I’d really like to turn to is that what we see in the politicised section of the press is clearly that leaders are issuing firm, clear instructions or requests to the population. Obviously this is important and good, but all the same, how many alternatives do you consider? We see that European countries have differed in the ways they’ve handled the crisis, the pandemic. So something that doesn’t appear in the press – but as we’re not in the political arena, perhaps I’m able to ask you here – is this: how many alternatives do you consider, and how much deep reflection is there before these firm, clear decisions and requests are made? To put it another way, what do you use as a compass or guiding star?
From one point of view my job is an enviable one, because if the situation requires it I have the privilege of being able to consult all the country’s brightest minds. This is wonderful, as when trouble strikes or a difficult question arises, then one automatically seeks out the country’s leading intellects; and as the Prime Minister one finds that doors open more easily, telephones are answered more quickly and people tend to pay more attention than might otherwise be the case. And my motto, my battle cry – if I can put it like that – is that one can never be clever enough on one’s own. In the work that I’m doing I think that this is the most important rule: you can never be clever enough on your own. You will always need assistance, including spiritual assistance. Daily prayer is a great help and self-examination is a great help, but also in a secular sense it’s true that one faces questions which are so difficult that you mustn’t believe that you’ll find the best answers to them on your own. This is why one must speak to people who are far cleverer than oneself, and who are sometimes world-class experts on a particular question. This is what I’m doing on a regular basis, even though I don’t have time to do it every day. And I’m always surprised at what a wonderful country ours is, and what a fantastic nation the Hungarian nation is. We have so many intelligent people in completely unexpected places, with fantastic capabilities and great bodies of scientific work that are completely unknown, hidden away from the general public – although perhaps they are known to people within their own discipline. So now too – when this pandemic has reared its head and we’ve been in need of researchers, practicing doctors, mathematicians and outstanding specialists in trend analysis – wherever I’ve been here in Hungary, speaking to Hungarians, everywhere I’ve been able to meet the most capable minds in the world. The current situation is not primarily a political one, but a disease pandemic, in which one’s traditional political experience and conventional knowledge is of little use. So I can say that, as your question suggests, it’s now particularly justified for us to involve in our decisions as many people and approaches and as much knowledge and experience as we can. And I reiterate: as a Hungarian this isn’t difficult. I’ve been able to meet a host of brilliant minds – such eminent people as Albert-László Barabási, our Széchenyi prize-winning professor, who lives in America and researches networks, and whom I met immediately before coming here. Five years ago he wrote that the development of megalopolises across the world – with populations growing in such large cities – would bring with it some type of pandemic, more or less within the present period. This was only a gut feeling, but clearly much of science comes down to intuition and isn’t only a matter of proof: instinct is also important. So some years ago Hungarian people were already talking about something like this happening. And now when trouble has struck, a huge number of Hungarian scientists are dealing with these questions. So is there deep reflection? There always is, but I think that you know about this aspect of the world better than I do. It’s not easy either when someone only needs to decide about their own life, and their responsibility goes no further than that. In that situation, if you make a bad decision you have to live with the consequences, my friend. By contrast, if you have to make decisions which affect others, then the responsibility suddenly increases. This responsibility is a burden, too. Responsibility is also a motivator – at least for competitive people, like me. But it also encourages one to be cautious, as one will not be the only individual suffering the consequences. So one must think things through thoroughly, and one mustn’t rush into decisions. One mustn’t simply wield one’s scalpel aimlessly, because in that case the patient won’t recover but bleed to death. So before every important decision I encounter the situation that you describe as deep reflection. In our more worldly way we don’t describe this as deep reflection, but consideration and preparation; nevertheless, if you unpack this, behind it you really do always find a person’s deep reflection. This applies to me. But this also possesses its own beauty – and it particularly has that beauty if the results of deep reflection are that one can arrive at more good decisions than bad ones. The word “burden” is not always negative. In their own lives people think that it’s a word which has some kind of negative connotation and they suspect a negative aspect, but this is not true in our profession: burdens often equate to beauty.
Yes, in Holy Scripture it’s written that one should always seek advice from the wise, but there are some who fail in this because somehow they sometimes make the wrong choice of person. But it’s undoubtedly a marvellous thing that you’ve found clever people who can give good advice, and that you’ve been carefully considering this advice. I’d also like to ask the following. Clearly this situation, this pandemic and the restriction on free movement is new for everyone. The first weeks of it have also been full of new experiences for the average person: online teaching and working from home; and then there was Easter, and everyone was occupied with that and what it would be like, whether or not we’d be able to sit around the Easter dinner table with our family members, if our young people could take part in the traditional customs, or if we could go to church. But that’s behind us now. And my question really is this: what are you counting on happening? Obviously I don’t want to ask you to make prophecies. But clearly the crisis is opening a new chapter in life in an international context, for individuals and for the country. So what could the positive consequences of this be, either for individuals or the country? So how will we survive this, or how will we come out of this?
If I can link this to your earlier question, then I can say that in this complicated and turbulent situation during my reflections the most difficult, the most painful and the most intellectually challenging aspect has been to correctly define the goal – because it’s not self-evident what the goal is. If one thing changes in one’s life it’s easy to decide on what to do about it; but when suddenly everything changes, when everything is shifting – the economy, the organisation of life, education, the healthcare situation, the conditions in hospitals – then what is the fixed point that you identify for yourself, what is the fixed point that will determine your decisions? And the importance of all those many scientists and professors is that they’ve helped me to find that point. And now, expressing it in profane terms, there was no guarantee of any kind – and today there still isn’t any such guarantee – that in such a global pandemic we’ll be able to keep the disease in check. Keeping the pandemic in check is a strange expression, because in normal circumstances this means that before very many people have fallen ill they receive an injection which contains a vaccine which will destroy the pathogen, and at that point we’re able to put the pandemic behind us. But in this case we don’t have a vaccine. So we’re dealing with a pathogen which we cannot destroy – or which we cannot yet destroy. And so the question is what future we should prepare our country for. In such a scenario-based situation one can formulate a response which is essentially optimistic or pessimistic. I have formulated a response which is essentially Christian, taking as my guide the old wisdom, “hope for the best and prepare for the worst”. And I’m hoping for the best, for us to pass through this phase with the smallest possible loss of life. But I’m preparing for the worst, which would be a situation in which it’s impossible to keep the pandemic in check, in which we’d be simply unable to slow its progress and it would run amok. And for this eventuality – because it cannot be ruled out – one must estimate exactly how many patients we’ll have, how many of them will need hospital beds, and of those how many will need intensive care. So ventilators must be provided. And then if one has taken this position, if one has identified the guiding star, one’s actions need to progress in that direction: the necessary mathematical calculations need to be made, and one has to say how many thousand beds, how many thousand ventilators, how many thousand nurses and specialists trained in the operation of those ventilators will be needed in which parts of the country. All these must be physically deployed. And after this, one must prepare a battle plan for how all this can be achieved. My everyday life is consumed by this work. Our plan is that by 3 May the country will be in a state of readiness in which there will be enough doctors, enough nurses, enough beds and enough ventilators for us to be able to take everyone to hospital who needs to go in the event of the pandemic becoming uncontrollable: a situation that we don’t expect to happen, but one that we cannot rule out. So we will not have to say to a single one of our compatriots that although they are infected with the coronavirus and their condition is life threatening, we cannot give them a bed in a hospital – or that once there we cannot provide them with a ventilator. If we carry out our work at the same pace as we have up to now, then by the time we get to 3 May we’ll have been able to rule out such a possibility. And then we’ll be able to say that the Hungarian healthcare system is capable of providing for every Hungarian who is in need of care. This is the work in which my life is now immersed every day. And so if I interpret the question that you’ve asked me – what I count on happening – in a short-term context, then I count on us being successful in achieving this result by 3 May. But if on the other hand I interpret your question as to what I count on happening in the medium term, then I can say – staying in the secular world – that, having taken stock of the experience of other countries, on 3 May we’ll be able to have a plan for recovery or a return to previous conditions. Of course we’ll need to be flexible in implementing this plan, but it assumes that by 3 May the country will have attained its full capacity to defend itself; and from that point onwards we’ll be able to allow ourselves, step by step, to try to return to the customary routine of our normal lives. But I’ll only be able to speak about this on 3–4 May at the earliest, and no earlier. I hope that by then, armed with the experience of several other countries, I’ll be able to present to the country a level-headed, reasonable, credible plan. If we lift our gaze further up above the horizon, then there is the question of when the Hungarian economy will recover from the deep wound it has sustained, and when it will start to breathe normally again. On this I can say that in the world and in Hungary today there are several schools of thought on how soon the economy can return to its previous level. I belong to the more moderate tendency: I see the economic decline being less severe than most people predict; but at the same time I see the return to normality occurring more slowly than the most optimistic analysts do. So I think that if God permits and we’re still alive and are able to meet and speak about this again this time next year, then in one year’s time we’ll be looking at an economy which is performing at the level which we saw two months ago. And if we raise our gaze still further, right up to the sky above, and we search for what consequences the current situation will have for our condition as humans – so not for our health or our economy, but for our spiritual and human condition – then I can say that in this respect I have more hope for a positive outcome than most people do. This is because in my experience adversity brings out much that is good in people. I don’t think that people will change overnight and that people will draw conclusions from the present problems which they will then apply to the conduct of their lives. I have no such illusions. But we are receiving a warning sign. I think that it’s still too early for us to accurately understand what is happening to us, because we have so much work and so little time. We shouldn’t yet draw far-reaching conclusions; but one already feels – and I see – the direction in which the ripples on the surface of the water are moving. And I think that the entire crisis has been a very important sign to Hungarians. I’m not now speaking on behalf of other nations, but on behalf of Hungarians. After all, what has happened? What we’ve seen is that things had been starting to go well: the economy was just getting into its stride, wages were starting to rise, and everyone had work. At the forefront of everyone’s way of thinking were economic development, progress and growth, because very many people – perhaps millions of people – could see that opening up before them were the kinds of opportunity that had not existed for forty years. And we’ve received a warning that has told us that this is all well and good: of course it’s important that you have a good standard of living, but don’t forget how to live a virtuous life. And living well doesn’t automatically lead to living virtuously. I think that it’s somewhere here that we must seek the meaning of what we’re now living through. This is a warning to Hungarians: you can take advantage of opportunities, become wealthier, have a job or even more than one, or have a new car; this is all important, as after all you are flesh and blood – but don’t forget that this in itself does not automatically bring an exalted and virtuous life. If you want to live a virtuous life you must make a personal effort to do so. You must not forget certain things – one another, for example. Do not forget those people, for example, with whom you are in lockdown at home: you will only have a virtuous life if you are able to live well with those people. And money will not help you in this. I believe that it is somewhere here that we must search for the answer to all that which gives meaning to what is happening to us now. Perhaps I’ve got a little ahead of myself and it’s too early to say this, but it’s important that I point out to the listeners that while we’re fighting against the current, it’s important that our eyes also follow the path of the stars above.
Yes, I think that our listeners – and indeed not only our listeners but everyone – is haunted by a nightmare that they pray God will not allow to happen: that doctors will be forced to choose whether or not to attempt to save them or one of their loved ones. I am certain that our listeners have the very highest appreciation for your values, and for the fact that the entire country and the Hungarian healthcare system is making preparations to prevent such a situation from happening. And thank you very much for making the distinction between an affluent life and a virtuous life here in the Mária Radio studio. Thank you for this conversation, and for coming to our studio. And as you’ve mentioned that you are meeting very many people, I think that on behalf of all our listeners I wish you the best of health, virus-free weeks and months in the time ahead, and much perseverance and wisdom.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much for coming.
Thank you very much for inviting me, and thank you for your words of encouragement. I would also like to thank Mária Radio’s listeners for following the progress of my work, and I thank them for the encouragement and the many prayers that I know they say for the success of my work and for me personally. I am grateful for this, and I will do all I can to deserve it. May God reward you!
Thank you very much, and I thank our audience for listening. Mária Radio’s guest was Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.