The third wave of coronavirus is currently brushing trough Hungary, producing frightening records practically every single day. Globalisation further enhances the spread, causing a situation never experienced before. However, Hungary has some knowledge on how to treat its people and what measure to take in case an epidemic of this magnitude strikes.
As we all studied history, we know that coronavirus is not the first global pandemic paralysing entire countries and continents. The devastating Spanish flue a hundred years ago wiping out one-third of the population at the time, or plague, a reoccurring disease that still secretly lives among us, are both something to be taken seriously. However, there is a third disease whose reappearance and the government’s response to it show some similarities to today’s pandemic circumstances.
In 1848, in the same year of the War of Independence,
an awful disease: cholera ran through Hungary for the second time in 18 years, causing a pandemic.
Index.hu talked to historian Csaba Fazekas to know more about the circumstances and the government’s measures in that particular situation.
In 1830, when cholera appeared for the first time in Hungary, the disease was already identified on a global level, helping Hungarian people to know more or less what they were up against.
The creation of an operative board and the collection, supervision and analysation of pandemic data is not a novelty
born due to covid. The newly established Batthyány government (the first Prime Minister of Hungary) sent a Minister and a group of 3 doctors to the Romanian Principality, where the first cases had been reported very close to Hungary. They reaffirmed that due to the high number of travellers, the infection would sooner or later reach Hungary as well. When this happened in May, the country was already deep into a revolutionary situation that burst out on 15 March. Contemporary reports and newspaper articles show the government’s dilemma about what to do exactly against a pandemic threat in the middle of a revolution.
Finally, in July, restrictions aimed at stopping the disease were released. However, the government emphasised they would not introduce a total lockdown as they had done in 1831. The reason behind this promise is the
reaction of the population 17 years earlier to the strict measures that ultimately caused a so-called “cholera revolt”, apart from the already heated revolutionary public sentiment.
Such as today, well-known doctors of that time – based on their knowledge – were giving out precautionary measures, which included the constant ventilation of rooms and thoroughly washing all foods. Not only precautions were published, of course, those who were infected also received help from the government in terms of how to treat themselves the best way possible. Against diarrhoea, the main symptom of cholera, a medicament containing coal and the use of essential oils were advised.
Thanks to the freedom of liberty, many “miracle doctors” appeared with their most effective treatments. “It is important to note that in the middle of the 19th century, not even doctors knew exactly how the disease was spreading”, – reminds Csaba Fazekas. Then he added that one thing was for sure,
there were no cholera deniers at that time.
According to him, the government, and later the commission, did everything in their power and their capabilities, based on the contemporary medical standards. A separate section in a hospital was set up in Pest-Buda solely for cholera patients, in a time when people did not go to hospitals to get treated but as a final step before death. Of course, outside the hospitals, infected people were separated from the population as the notion of quarantine has been known since the middle ages.
From October 1848, an operation board was operating – the Committee on National Cholera Issues – to acquire data on the epidemic so that they could foresee the spreading and the severity of it.
Revolutionary military actions had both negative and positive effects at the same time. On the one hand, the economic and commercial halt caused difficulties, although armed conflicts made people stay home and not travel for a while. The movement of military troupes technically created a quarantine situation among civilians as they were afraid to move around.
On the other hand, due to the lack of a unified Hungarian policy and the revolutionary situation during which the borders were changing a bit from time to time, effectively stepping up against cholera and obtaining real numbers of cases and victims was impossible. However, we can guess that the two waves of cholera between 1848 and 1849 took up to 200-250 thousand lives.
It is interesting to note that
the epidemic appeared in the propaganda of the revolution
as well. Wherever it was detected, it was linked to Russia and Russian troops, stating that they were dragging cholera into Hungary. Nevertheless, it was not true as the disease was already inside the country when these troops crossed the borders at the beginning of 1849.