The Vienna General Hospital where Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis saved lives by enforcing handwashing.

Even kids know the value of washing hands, pestered as they are by parents to use soap and water before dinner or after playing outside. COVID-19’s mounting death toll has made hand washing an even more urgent phenomenon and even a life-saving measure, as global health experts constantly remind the world to wash often for 20 seconds at a time.

But it wasn’t always like this.

John Parkerson, Hungary’s honorary consul general and foreign trade counselor for Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama, evoked a time in the mid-19th century when childbirth often ended in the death of either the mother, child or both.

John Parkerson, honorary consul general of Hungary

During a Zoom conference hosted by the Atlanta Council on International Relations (ACIR) May 13, Mr. Parkerson relayed the insight of the Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis who was puzzled by the disparity between the lower death rates for deliveries by midwives at homes and the maternal death rate, often 10 to 20 times higher, at the best maternity hospitals in Europe and America.

While practicing at the famed Vienna General Hospital (Allgemeines Krankenhaus) almost exactly 170 years ago to the day (May, 15, 1850), Dr. Semmelweis exhorted his fellow doctors to wash their hands before examining women about to deliver babies.

Although most disregarded the warning and the deaths continued until it was widely realized that the ghastly malady known as “childbed” or puerperal fever could be dramatically curbed by handwashing in a chlorinated lime solution.

The villain, an infection caused by the streptococcus bacterium, was often picked up during autopsies that were performed by the same doctors conducting the deliveries.

Mr. Parkerson came to his honorary consulship not through the medical field, however, but as an attorney, academic administrator, and blues enthusiast hosting in Atlanta the Hungarian ambassador, Andras Simonyi. At the ambassador’s request, Mr. Parkerson took him to Blind Willie’s Blues Club where the foreign diplomat played the electric guitar late into the night with a local band — to everyone’s delight and to Mr. Parkinson’s eventual appointment as honorary consul.

His diplomatic and commercial acumen have been rewarded by the Hungarian government, which in 2007 appointed him to honorary consul, then promoted him in 2014 to honorary consul general and in 2018 honored him with the “Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit,” the highest honor which can be bestowed on a non-Hungarian citizen.

Meanwhile, a host of Atlanta companies have invested in Hungary including majors such as AGCO, Coca-Cola and UPS.

Anticipating questions about the fears that Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has been introducing authoritarian rule in the country, Mr. Parkerson addressed head-on the parliament’s vote to pass a bill that gives Mr. Orban the right to rule by decree as long as COVID-19 remains a threat to the country’s welfare.

Mr. Parkerson defined Hungary’s government as a Christian parliamentary democracy, and cited its actions to safeguard its sovereignty such as sealing off its borders to immigrants, to its historical, ethnic and political backgrounds.

Counterbalancing its independence, Mr. Parkerson pointed to Hungary’s active involvement as a member of the European Union and NATO. He cited its refusal to join the eurozone as a sign of its independence streak, and he dismissed concerns about Mr. Orban being granted absolute power by parliament in response to the coronavirus by a vote of 137 to 53.

The fact that there have been — as of May 13 — 3,313 confirmed cases of COVID-19 detected and 425 deaths from the virus in Hungary’s population of 9.8 million, seemed to allay Mr. Parkinson’s fears that there may have been an unwarranted power grab by the prime minister. He added that Mr. Orban’s authority can be reversed under the act by a simple majority vote whenever parliament feels it is necessary to do so.

During this period, Hungary has experienced strong economic growth. Last year its GDP growth rate was clocked at 4.9 percent, which Mr. Parkerson attributed to a low corporate tax rate of 7 percent, a skilled workforce and investment by traditional overseas investors including companies from Germany, the United States and South Korea as well as new investors from China and India.

Mr. Parkerson also referred to some unexpected twists in the relations between Georgia and Hungary. For instance, he described the founding of Budapest, Ga., in Haralson County in the 1880s when some 200 Hungarians  from wine-making families settled there and named their town after Hungary’s capital city.

He also mentioned that Pat Wilson, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, was accompanied to Hungary last year by executives from the South Korean company SK Innovation, developer and manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries for hybrid electric vehicles. Hungary is known for having an extensive automobile manufacturing sector and SK Innovation is investing there as well as spending an estimated $2.5 billion on a new plant in Georgia

Mr. Parkerson is an attorney in the international practice group at Hall Booth Smith PC, and is a board member of the Atlanta Council on International Relations. To learn more about ACIR programs, click here.