KYIV, Ukraine—Lying in pain with pneumonia and constant muscle spasms, Andrey Mozyl could do nothing but hammer the hospital wall with his fist. He was hospitalized in the Ukrainian city of Odessa with COVID-19, but there’s only so much the medical staff can do to ease his suffering.
“There is not enough oxygen. Doctors constantly complain about shortages of medicine,” the 54-year-old businessman told The Daily Beast. “Our president, Zelensky, says he is the ‘master of fighting COVID.’ But this is laughable.”
About 800 people in Ukraine are dying of the virus daily. But the battle against COVID isn’t the only crisis the country is facing: Already traumatized by 7 years of war, Ukrainians are living in fear of a potential Russian invasion, with some 100,000 Russian troops deployed near Ukraine’s border as of this month.
Meanwhile, public trust in President Volodymyr Zelesky is plummeting quickly. His approval ratings have gone down from 73 percent in 2019 to 21 percent this month. Even though the best Western vaccines, including Pfizer and Moderna, are available in Ukraine, only 8.8 million Ukrainians have been fully vaccinated—less than one third of the population. Widespread distrust of the government is fueling vaccine hesitancy, and hospital treatment is dismal.
The pandemic has killed more Ukrainians in the past four months than the ongoing war in Donbas has in seven years. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, thousands of pro-Kremlin militiamen, led by Russian and local ideologists, took over major state buildings in the Donetsk outblast and other Ukrainian regions. Eventually, Ukrainian forces managed to fight back and curb rebel forces, drawing the so-called “line of contact,” which divides Ukraine proper from separatist territories.
Seven years later, tensions are still flaring on an on-again-off-again basis, as Ukrainian forces continue to fight Russian-backed militias, resulting in the loss of some 4,500 Ukrainian citizens so far.
Now, the Ukraine-controlled part of Donetsk, a virtual warzone, is bearing the brunt of the COVID crisis in the country, registering 120 virus-induced deaths on Monday alone. But rather than blaming Russia for the economic and political turmoil that rocked eastern Ukraine before the pandemic, locals seem to be directing their fury at their own government for its staggering vaccine campaign and overwhelmed medical institutions.
“In Donetsk region people often struggle to find professional medical help, since most major hospitals equipped with intensive care units are on the other side of the frontline, in the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk,” the head of Donbas Regional Policy Institute, Enrike Menendes, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
But things seem grim on the other side of the frontlines, too, in the rebel-controlled part of the region. According to Novosti Donbasa, 7,507 people have died in the self-proclaimed People’s Donetsk Republic since the beginning of the pandemic.
As in most post-Soviet countries, many Ukrainians are hesitant about going to hospitals and prefer to take their chances recovering at home. “People are full of blind and irrational fear of vaccines, the anti-vax resistance is a symbolic resistance to the government,” Vera Zaporozhets, an Odessa-based documentary filmmaker, told The Daily Beast.
“We have no free beds left at the intensive care units in Odessa, there is a shortage of professional medical help,” a local volunteer, Aleksandra Tisheikina, told The Daily Beast. Tisheikina’s charity fund, M-Corporation, has provided more than 1,000 oxygen bottles for COVID patients receiving treatment at home.
Tens of thousands of young professionals, including medical personnel and doctors have left the Ukrainian government-controlled parts of the Donbas region since 2014. The remaining population of about 300,000 live in small towns close to the frontlines. The sound of artillery fire is not as intense as it was in the beginning of the war, but every month, the civilian and military casualty number inevitably increases.
More than three million people live in the seperatist Donetsk and Luhansk republics, where they rely on Russian-supplied vaccines. Due to the pandemic, most of the checkpoints along the line of contact were shut down, and up to 200,000 pensioners living in the separatist regions were not able to enter Ukraine to receive their funds.
To promote COVID vaccination, President Zelensky announced this week that every fully vaccinated Ukrainian would receive a reward of $38, but since Ukraine does not recognize the Russian vaccine, residents of the separatist territories will not be paid the promised reward.
“Sometimes, people can’t make it to the nearest hospital in time [to survive],” said Menendes.
“We are dealing with an unpopular reform of the health system, a major economic decline and the energy crises on its way,” referring to Russia’s decision to halt coal exports to the country earlier this month.
All that, and a war to boot.