The View From Here: Covid has Ukraine on the ropes

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Volodymyr Kish.

Ukraine is suffering a crushing Covid crisis. Over the past few days Ukraine has seen upwards of 22,000 new cases every day, with daily death tolls of around 500. To date, at least 62,000 Ukrainians have died of Covid, though I suspect the real toll is much higher, as I believe Ukraine’s official health statistics are somewhat suspect.

Of course, none of this is surprising as Ukraine has been very slow to recognize the magnitude and consequences of the pandemic, and even slower at implementing appropriate measures. It only started vaccinating its population this past February, almost a year after most of the rest of Europe started to vaccinate its populations in earnest. Currently only 16% of the country’s citizens are fully vaccinated. By contrast, its next-door neighbour Poland sits at 50% vaccinated, Turkey is at 47%, and Slovakia is at 40%. Here in Canada, we currently have some 74% of the total population fully vaccinated, and shortly that will increase significantly as we start vaccinating children in the 5-to-11-year range.

Ukraine experienced severe difficulties initially at being able to source vaccines. Although Russian and Chinese vaccines were offered and available, Ukrainian authorities as well as the general population were extremely leery of using vaccines from these two countries because of legitimate concerns over their quality and effectiveness. There were similar concerns, though much less justifiable, of buying vaccines from India which is the world’s largest producer of vaccines. In the end, Ukraine was finally able to obtain vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca earlier this year and begin their vaccine roll-out. Ukraine has also approved and is using the Chinese Sinovac/Coronavac vaccines, though these remain unpopular with the general Ukrainian population.

Although vaccine supplies are now adequate, there is a strong resistence amongst Ukrainians towards getting vaccinated. According to a national poll conducted this past August, some 56% of Ukrainians indicated that they were not willing to get vaccinated. Some of this is due to the large volume of misinformation and disinformation about the vaccines floating around on the Internet, but a lot of it is also due to a historical mistrust of the medicine and pharmacutical distribution system in Ukraine. Since independence there has been a proliferation of bogus or fake drugs being sold in Ukraine, and there is a large degree of mistrust among the population with the administration of any kind of medicine. This has also affected the credibility of the government’s health officials. Although Health Minister Liashko stated last month that 92% of hospitalizations and 99% of deaths from Covid were people who had not been vaccinated, there still remains a great deal of public skepticism and mistrust of any official statements by the government.

The situation is rendered even more dire by the fact that Ukraine’s health care system is sorely lacking in its capacity and ability to deal with the exponential increase in hospitalizations. To a large degree, the health care facilities and systems in Ukraine are still burdened with inefficient Soviet era processes and practices. They are also suffering from inadequate funding. Although there was a significant effort started by Health Minister Ulana Suprun to reform the system during the last administration under President Poroshenko, these essentially ground to a halt when President Zelensky was elected and Suprun was let go. This sad state of affairs is punctuated by the fact that a recent study by UNICEF found that some 40% of health care workers in Ukraine were also hesitant to get the vaccine.

It would be fair to say that the Covid epidemic in Ukraine is out of control. It is so bad that the government has shut down large parts of the economy and imposed strict quarantine restrictions in most of the major cities and oblasts (provinces). Schools are closed with all learning being in “remote” mode. Five oblasts — Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Odesa, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk are deemed to be in the “RED” zone, which means that most public and commercial facilities are closed down, with strict masking and distancing restrictions in place for people venturing out from home. The government is using a GREEN, YELLOW, ORANGE and RED coding system with associated levels of restrictions for the various regions. Currently, no region is in the GREEN category.

As grim as it may seem, there appears to be a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. The recent large spike in deaths from Covid has caused some Ukrainians at least to reconsider their vaccine hesitancy. Last week almost a million Ukrainians decided to have a vaccine shot. Hopefully the tide is beginning to turn and Ukrainians will respond to the vaccination efforts with a greater sense of priority.