The View From Here: COVID has Ukraine under siege

Volodymyr Kish.

Over the past month, it has become obvious that Canada had entered the “second wave” of the COVID pandemic, with a dramatic increase in infections. Over the summer months, the rate of new cases had dropped to under two hundred per day, leading people to believe that the worst was over. Such hopes were obviously premature. Over the past week, we have been seeing over two thousand new cases each day, and with the onset of the annual flu season, expectations are that it will get much worse before it gets better. Effective treatments are still in the experimental stage, and it will likely be many months yet before a proven vaccine is available.

As dire as the situation may be in our country, Ukraine is faring far worse. Initially, when the coronavirus started spreading globally, Ukraine reported fairly low numbers. Although there were some doubts about the credibility of the official statistics, infection rates were relatively low compared to other European countries. In the early months of spring and summer, Ukraine was seeing only several hundred new infections daily. That started to accelerate over the summer as millions of Ukrainians who had been working in western European countries started returning home. In contrast to Europe and North America, where there was a pronounced decrease after the first wave and a subsequent large increase into a second wave, Ukraine never got out of its first wave, which is heading towards its peak as I write this. In recent days, Ukraine has been seeing over five thousand new cases each day, with daily deaths approaching one hundred. Compare this to Canada which is seeing less than half that number of new cases on a daily basis, and a quarter of that number of fatalities. Experts estimate that the number of deaths from COVID in Ukraine will reach twenty thousand by year end.

All this is causing a lot of strain on Ukraine’s beleaguered health care system. There are currently over twenty-two thousand people in Ukrainian hospitals being treated for COVID, with that number growing daily. The number of hospital beds available in Ukraine to treat coronavirus patients is estimated to be between thirty and fifty thousand, though any such estimates are problematic, as there are chronic shortages of staff, equipment and supplies. The shortage of protective equipment in the early stages of the pandemic caused high rates of infection among medical staff. In April, official statistics showed that 20 per cent of new infections were among health care workers. The corresponding rate in the U.S. at that time was 2 per cent. Since the start of the pandemic, over seventeen thousand Ukrainian health care workers have been infected by the virus.

With infection rates increasing, there may also soon be a shortage of ventilators to treat acutely sick COVID patients. Back in April, Ukrainian hospitals only had some two thousand ventilators available. More have been acquired in recent months, but the total number is currently still only around four thousand, which may prove inadequate if cases continue to rise sharply at the current rates. By contrast, Canada is expected to have forty thousand ventilators in place by the end of the year.

Although the Ukrainian government has put restrictions and quarantine regulations in place, public adoption of these measures has been found wanting, and the authorities have done far too little in enforcing compliance with masking and social distancing requirements. Too many people in Ukraine have not gotten the message about wearing masks in public, and the authorities have turned a blind eye on the issue. Ukraine’s Health Minister Maksym Stepanov complained about the government’s and politicians’ lack of commitment and urgency in this when he said recently “It would be better if you directed the enthusiasm with which you organize concerts with thousands of spectators toward informing people about safety measures and worrying about their health.”

Probably the most unforgivable action on the government’s part, when it comes to fighting the pandemic, has been its misuse of funds. Earlier in the year, the government set aside $2.4 Billion into a special COVID fund. Incredibly, more than half of this fund was diverted into “pork barrel” road building projects, as well as numerous other dubious expenditures that had nothing to do with either COVID or health care. As has become typical with Ukrainian governments, political considerations seem to override everything else.

As Ukraine heads into the winter flu season with COVID raging out of control, there is great cause for alarm. It is time for a wake-up call for the Ukrainian government as well as the public, to finally start taking this pandemic seriously.