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article imageHungary hospital evacuations spell misery for families

By Peter MURPHY, Balazs Wizner (AFP)     Apr 30, 2020 in World

Lilla Ilona Szeleczki's terminally ill mother, a 79-year-old with chronic pneumonia and a kidney tumour, twice tested negative for the new coronavirus in a Budapest hospital so she was sent home. She died within a week.

"My mother suffered for six days at home, without appropriate medical care. She should have stayed in hospital, they sent her home dying," the 58-year-old told AFP.

Szeleczki's family is one of many hit by a controversial Hungarian government order that forced hospitals to free up beds for potential COVID-19 patients, placing heavy logistical, physical and emotional burdens on relatives of those sent home.

Szeleczki took her mother to her sister's flat in a tower block on the edge of Budapest on April 15.

The elderly woman fell unconscious there and was returned to hospital on April 21. She died the next day.

"I will never forget looking down from the balcony, when she was put in the ambulance in her nightdress covered by a thin blanket. It was just 15 degrees outside (59 degrees Fahrenheit)," Szeleczki said.

- Worst case scenario -

Hungary, which has a population of almost 10 million, has recorded almost 3,000 COVID-19 infections and just over 300 deaths.

Despite the low numbers compared to western Europe, the minister in charge of health, Miklos Kasler, ordered hospitals last month to ensure that half the country's 67,000 beds were empty.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban acknowledged that the "military-like" operation -- ordered to be carried out within four working days -- caused "discomfort".

But he said it was essential in case coronavirus infection numbers surged and overwhelmed hospitals, especially once curfew restrictions are relaxed this month.

"No one can afford to make available a smaller number of beds in an epidemic than experts forecast for the worst case scenario," said Bence Retvari, a state secretary, this week.

- Hardly any money for burial -

Kasler said that only two percent of hospital beds actually needed to be evacuated in the end as many beds were already empty.

But some experts have disputed this figure, while authorities have declined to specify exactly how many patients were sent home.

Left to care for their bed-bound mother in their cramped communist-era apartment, Szeleczki and her sister had to carry out unfamiliar nursing tasks such as giving injections and changing diapers.

"Our dear mother just lay there. Every movement was painful for her. Half of each mouthful of food or drink fell to the side," said Szeleczki, who herself suffers from severe back pain.

She now wants to sue the hospital, although "we hardly have the money for a proper burial, never mind legal costs".

Other reported deaths of non-COVID-19 patients include a 72-year-old stroke victim suffering from Alzheimers who died within 12 hours of being discharged.

Solving logistical problems posed by caring for an elderly parent has also frustrated many including Ildiko Kovacs, a 48-year-old administration worker.

"I'm not working much now as I spend most of the time treating her recovering broken leg," she told AFP while feeding her mother who was sent home after her operation.

Chief Medical Officer Cecilia Muller, a government appointee, urged families to "understand and look after ill relatives who do not need hospital care in these difficult days".

Last month she insisted that no one would be sent home if their health was at risk of deteriorating and has since promised investigations of complaints from relatives.

- Medical ethics -

With the government tightly controlling information on its anti-virus measures and infection case modelling, speculation has swirled around the evacuations.

Doctors have been prohibited from talking publicly about the move. A hospital director who failed to comply with the order in time was fired.

The Hungarian Chamber of Doctors, an independent association, said the measure was "professionally unjustified" and "led to serious problems of medical ethics and conscience".

Former chief medical officer Ferenc Falus told reporters "it is not possible that 30,000 people will be sick at the same time".

"Either the government expects a very big spike in the number of cases, or they just did not consider the policy well enough," said opposition MP Katalin Cseh.

Others have darker theories.

"It feels like using a kind of euthanasia to decrease bed numbers in old inefficient hospitals, then later closing them by stealth," a Budapest-based doctor told AFP on condition of anonymity.

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