Two and a half years ago 444.hu reported on the then newly published “Survey at a Glance,” a poll taken by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The editors summed up their findings on Hungary as “We are unhappy and sick. We are frightened and hate everybody and soon enough we will slip away from the community of developed nations.” After reading the summary of the statistics, I decided that the title, which at first glance seemed overly dramatic, pretty well described the state of affairs in Hungary in 2014.
This time 444.hu looked at the newly released data of the European Social Survey (ESS) in which researchers studied such societal attitudes as trust in justice, views on welfare, understanding and evaluation of democracy, personal and social well-being, health and its determinants, and attitude towards immigration. The general impression was that “Hungarian society is in a wretched [ramaty] state.”
ESS’s findings are based on an enormous amount of data collected by sociologists from over 30 countries. In Hungary the work was done by researchers of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences who a few days ago organized a conference on “Where is Hungary on the map of European Societies?” The 444.hu article is basically a report on the lectures delivered at this conference, but I suggest taking a look at the actual ESS survey, which is full of fascinating details.
It never fails: northern European countries lead the way in practically all categories, be it education or people’s trust in institutions and each other. They are followed by the western half of the continent. Hungary, alongside other East-Central European countries, lags behind. As 444.hu reports, Hungary is near the bottom of the countries studied in almost all categories. Here I will look at a few findings that I personally found revealing.
The first: people’s interest in and knowledge of politics. Respondents were asked to indicate their interest in politics on a four-point scale. The Danes and the Germans were the winners here with a score 2.84, followed by the Swedes, Swiss, Dutch, Finns, Brits, all the way down to Hungary (1.96) and the Czech Republic (1.82). What is the reason for such a low level of interest in politics in Hungary? One might guess that it is their disappointment in the political elite. Disillusionment is certainly part of the problem. The other reason might be the barriers to joining this select group of people entrusted with governing the country. But it turns out that the most important reason is that Hungarians feel inadequate to the task of being engaged in politics. As 444.hu in its usual blunt way put it, “Hungarians are not only not interested in politics but consider themselves too stupid [hűlyék] to pursue it.” Their feeling of incompetence, according to the sociologists, is a greater barrier than the closed nature of politics. Mind you, Hungarians are not entirely off the mark when they have a low opinion of their own competence. In the last 25 years almost nothing has been done to teach schoolchildren about the Hungarian political system.
We often read reports, especially in pro-government papers, about the dreadful no-go zones in those western European countries with a high percentage of African and Middle Eastern immigrants. These reports claim that in Hungary, where there are practically no newly arrived immigrants, public safety is assured. People are not afraid to go out on the street at night. Well, this is simply not so. Nowadays all apartment houses are shut tight. People, not just in Hungary but everywhere in East-Central Europe, are afraid to go out at night even if neither they themselves nor anyone they know has ever been assaulted.
The ESS report’s chapter on “Social Inequalities in Health and Their Determinants” uses a model called the Dahlgren-Whitehead rainbow in which there is a lot of emphasis on individual lifestyle choices: fruit and vegetable consumption, physical activity, smoking, alcohol consumption, BMI, health care utilization, mental well-being, quality of housing, and working conditions. Hungarians are not known for their wise lifestyle choices. Most people would rather opt for medication for, let’s say, high blood pressure than try to lose weight and exercise more. Thus, it is not terribly surprising that the percentage of seriously ill people is very high, nearly 14%. This places Hungary in the penultimate position among 21 countries studied.
Let’s see some of the contributing factors to this sad state of affairs. Here is a country that is justifiably proud of the quality of its fruits and vegetables. Yet Hungarians don’t eat them; Hungary has the lowest fruit and vegetable consumption. Hungarian women exercise the least while the men beat only the Portuguese. Hungarian women are the most overweight, and only Lithuanians smoke more than Hungarian men.
The Hungarian researchers in this particular study didn’t talk about alcoholism, but it is also a serious problem. A few days ago HVG reported on a Hungarian initiative called “Dry November,” a version of “Go Sober for October.” Its organizers complained that the Orbán government not only has no “alcohol strategy” but in fact has been promoting pálinka consumption.
When it comes to political engagement, the current Hungarian government has no reason to encourage widespread civic participation, which would threaten its hegemony in the political sphere. And enlightening schoolchildren about the workings of democracy as we in the West understand it is certainly not to the advantage of the autocratic, semi-dictatorial regime of Viktor Orbán. As for bolstering preventive medicine and campaigning for more healthful living, this would require a great deal more money than the Orbán government currently spends on healthcare. The Orbán government did establish a network of tobacconist shops for the alleged purpose of limiting tobacco use. Their real purpose, however, was to give the faithful a monopoly on tobacco sales.
All in all, one can’t expect any great improvement in the “wretched state” of Hungarian society, which remains full of unhappy, sick, and fearful men and women.