Posted on Apr 28, 2020
Russia’s denial of the scale of its COVID-19 outbreak, and the human cost resulting from that denial, appears to be replicated in its dependent, although internationally unrecognised, so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
These regions, divided by Kremlin-inflicted hostilities and with an infrastructure decimated by five years of conflict, are facing a humanitarian crisis of the sort that only Russia, which appears to view coronavirus as a “beneficial crisis” to such a degree that it has cynically shelved its instinctive “Sino-phobia”, can inflict.
According to pro-Kremlin media outlet RIA Novosti, as of April 9th there were 198 people with suspected coronavirus COVID-19 in the hospitals controlled by the Donetsk “DPR” group in hospital.
However, as in Russia, the current “leader” of the region appears, publicly, to be in total denial of the virus’ existence on “their territory”.
I’ll be totally honest, for a range of reasons, including economic ones, we can’t afford to shut down businesses or announce a period of no work, especially as, I repeat, right now we have no one suffering from COVID-19.
This bodes ill for the remaining residents, their livelihoods and their way of life already shattered by war.
The population in the “non-government-controlled areas” as Donetsk and Luhansk has halved since the conflict began, and now stands at around three million.
Nobody, not even Pushilin (pictured left), knows the true number however: as is the case most areas of public life, the administration has all but collapsed. One thing that is certain however is the fact that those left behind - either unwilling to leave their homes, or with nowhere to go - are those who are at the greatest risk from the virus.
It is estimated that around 36% of the remaining population are pensioners, many living in extreme poverty as they are currently unable to cross into government controlled areas in order to collect their pensions.
Many are suffering from acute physical and mental health problems - during the Second World War, in the UK “war stress”, prevalent amongst the women left at home, was officially recognised as a cause of death - and from years of living in a conflict zone. Mental health care in the regions has all but collapsed.
Against this backdrop, the non-government-controlled areas are gravely lacking in all medical resources. In a 2009 report, humanitarianresponse.info reported that two-thirds of healthcare facilities in areas closest to the “contact line” damaged, 38 per cent of households report lacking access to health-care services.
Tuberculosis (TB) is highly endemic in the region and is a major concern. The elderly are now rarely able to access vital medicines. When Pushilin’s non-existent virus claims them, there will be no help.
There are no tests to detect coronavirus in the occupied Donbas and Crimea. Occupation authorities are hiding the real picture from the outside world and from citizens living in these territories, if someone contracts a virus or dies in the occupied territories, they call it A (H1N1) flu. That's as if it was supposedly swine flu, but with a lethal outcome. We don’t know what the epidemiological situation really is there, but there is a fact that the 'border' between the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions has been locked. They do realise that they need to put themselves on a lockdown, but the question whether the move was made too late.
It is hard to imagine how resolving the crisis, when it is eventually acknowledged, will be managed in a war-torn region where governance is at best flimsy, where healthcare workers have fled, and where infrastructure is collapsing.
Without the Ukrainian government reasserting its legitimacy by intervening, a challenge that may not in fact be insurmountable, a humanitarian disaster on a potentially epic scale is in the making.
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