The cab ride took 15 minutes, down the fashionable Andrássy útca., around the construction of Városliget (City Park) and pass the recently shuttered rock club Dürer Kert – one of the last venues I went to before the world shut down.
After a few turns away from the main drags and into the Eastern European urban sprawl, the cab stopped in front of an aging hospital. It looked like a cross between an old New York City fire station and an abandoned church, but it was the right place.
There was no line outside and I walked through a bulky TSA-like fever scanner, and was again standing in front of a table with large sheets of paper, names and numbers. The official registration.
There was just one woman behind the table. White haired, friendly, accommodating. A nurse, who spoke very little English.
I handed her my ID cards, and watched as she checked them against her papers. I wasn’t on the list. I knew I wasn’t on the list because I was there trying to scam my way into a vaccine. To pretend that I had an appointment, that I was eligible, that I belonged there.
A man – early 60s, bulky grandfather type – standing nearby told me in his Hungarian accented English that he was in a similar situation. He had been waiting there for hours because his name wasn’t on the list either. A typical bureaucratic oversight, he assumed. Lost in the shuffle of a haphazard process.
I thought I’d have to wait months to get vaccinated. I thought I’d have to go back to the states.
Turns out, all I had to do was show up at a government run vaccination center on the near edge of Zugló (District XIV) in Budapest on a chilly, grayed out Easter Sunday and completely lie.
Now, while I thought I was going to have to wait months to get the jab, I really mean that I thought I’d have to wait months to get the right jab: Moderna. Pfizer. (Even Johnson & Johnson! Gah!)
In Hungary, the vaccine marketplace is dominated by two shots. Sinophram, the Chinese vaccine. And Sputnik, coming straight out of Moscow. Both are readily available to almost everyone.
See, the self-proclaimed illiberal government – led by Orbán the Ogre – made a calculation sometime ago that it was going to get ahead of the EU’s vaccination plans (botched, admittedly) and secure whatever vaccines they could. Russia and China were happy to oblige.
Whether that was a good idea or not, I’ll let the political medical industrial complex debate and decide. Yes, getting vaccines into the arms of the elderly any way you can seems like a sound plan. Circumventing science and EU regulations and depending on Russian and Chinese benevolence for your healthcare needs seems fraught with long term issues, least of which includes vaccination passports for travel to places that haven’t approved of these off-brand shots.
One of the many sad ironies of this whole situation here is that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are both built upon revolutionary science developed by an understated and, until recently, underappreciated Hungarian biochemist, Katalin Karikó.
Either way, I – a healthy (ish) 40-year-old cis white male ex-pat from New Jersey – didn’t want the Chinese or Russian vaccine. Nor was I too keen on giving my arm and my immune system over to the AstraZenica jab.
If I’ve learned anything this past year, living in a somewhat unstable foreign country during a vicious global pandemic, it’s to trust my survival instinct: Stock up on rice and beans, make sure my bills are paid, check in with family and friends, and stay away from vaccines that sound like Captain Beefheart album titles.
So, I was surprised to receive a message from a friend on Saturday at 8:15 pm, telling me that if I showed up at a vaccination site the next day I could probably get the Moderna shot. Probably.
Tell them your doctor sent you. Tell them your wife is expecting. Tell them anything. Get their sympathy. Use your charm. Play the dumb American card. Make a scene. Shed some tears. Do anything you can.
So, lie, basically.
Nothing was guaranteed, she said, but why not? And it would probably be my only chance for a long time.
(I ended up bringing with me about 50k HUF, around $160 USD, just in case I had to grease somebody. Although my friend said that definitely wouldn’t work.)
I was surprised Moderna made it here and was “available” anyplace, but a private clinic, which would cost a whole lot more than $160. In Hungary, you can pretty much get anything you want – including top-of-the-line healthcare – if you’re willing to pay for it.
It’s the classic rich versus not-rich divide: The public healthcare system is in shambles and has all but collapsed under the weight of the pandemic. Doctors and nurses have quit en masse, and the Soviet-era facilities are part of a broader failed system. Most of the hospitals here have been at capacity for quite some time and that, unlike other developed nations, if you are put on a ventilator, it’s pretty much a death sentence. This is common knowledge – but not much will be done to change it anytime soon.
I trusted my friend, though. People under 35 in Budapest know what’s up. She’s a grad student studying neurochemistry, and moonlights as some kind of project manager for a local tech entrepreneur and told me she was now also helping her mother, who worked for the government health department, scheduling vaccinations. Also, we had a few fun nights together and she introduced me to one of my favorite Hungarian books; My First Two Hundred Years by Pál Királyhegyi. She’s good people.
And she was thrilled that I agreed to try to bullshit my way into a Moderna jab. Many of her friends were not willing to risk blacklist, fines, arrest, excommunication, death by firing squad, getting thrown off the Széchenyi Chain Bridge with a sack of bricks tied to your feet – who knows what the punishment would be! The criminal justice system is opaque at best. At worst, it’s an anti-crime crime syndicate.
I didn’t give a shit though. I’ve had the government and corporate stooges stand in my way before, and wasn’t afraid to at least make a run at them, see where it got me. Worse comes to worst, I’d play the dumb foreigner card.
But there was no need for I got very lucky.
I didn’t have to cause a scene. I didn’t have to shed any tears, or spend any money. All I had to do was just show up and say to whoever would listen that my doctor had sent me.
I don’t know if they believed me. I don’t think they cared.
After not finding my name on the registration, the nurse conversed in Hungarian with the head administrator, a short straight-haired woman in her late 40s whose forgiving face and caring eyes had been stiffened by a long day of serious work, her responsibilities now held in the grip of her tightened jaw and furrowed brow line.
Thankfully, she didn’t have any interest in litigating the failings of her country’s healthcare system, and just told me to wait, that she would figure something out.
I probably should feel guilty because I didn’t wait my turn , acting like an ugly, entitled American.
But I didn’t: The Covid vaccine is a modern miracle, and for it to be safely stored and administered in a run-down hospital in Zugló of all places, whose walls have probably witnessed more than their fair share of tragedy and suffering felt special, divine even.
I’m sure it had been a long time since anyone came to this depressing building and expected anything resembling modern medicine, let alone a possible cure for a virus that killed millions and shut down the world for more than a year.
The Hungarian man standing beside me, who had been there waiting for hours in a similar predicament, helped me translate the ridiculous form I had to fill out and we laughed at the absurd, miraculous situation we found ourselves in.
I got the jab, waited a few minutes to make sure my organs didn’t melt, and then I was handed a piece of paper.
Written on it, in shaky handwriting in uppercase letters: MODERNA.
“Ernie Lord ” is a pseudonym because the author does not want to be thrown off a bridge.