The coronavirus is spreading throughout the world, and has infected hundreds of thousands and killed thousands. Ukraine, with only three confirmed cases and one death, seems to have been spared the brunt of the outbreak so far.
But Ukraine is also uniquely vulnerable, due to a 420-kilometer-long “line of contact” that separates government-controlled territory from Russian-occupied land. 1.1 million Ukrainians cross the line every month, many of whom are pensioners crossing to collect their pension from Ukrainian banks on the government-controlled territory. These pensioners — in the 60+ age group most vulnerable to the coronavirus — represent a potential tragedy if the virus does experience an outbreak in Ukraine.
Florence Gillette, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation to Ukraine, says that “it's true that most people that are living close to the line of contact and crossing the line of contact — in particular, if you look at Stanytsia Luhanska — are people that are among those age categories. We know a lot of people are crossing because of pension-related matters, so they are pensioners, and most of the pensioners are in those categories. We also have to take into account that the people who are crossing the line of contact very often, also people that have been affected by the conflict. So they did suffer also from five to six years of fighting impact on health services that might have weakened their health systems, their own health, their personal health.”
In order to minimize the risk of the coronavirus spreading, says Gillette, Ukrainian authorities should focus heavily on communication – what the virus is, what it does, how it spreads, and prevention methods.
“I think a lot about the coronavirus is also about communication and ensuring people understand what it is… Hygiene, washing your hands ensures that you limit sometimes direct physical contact, but by good hygiene practice, you really play a big role in prevention,” says the delegation head.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has experience with infectious disease outbreaks in conflict zones, thanks to their humanitarian work in Africa during the Ebola virus, among other times. And while Gillette says that ICRC will not take a primary role in combating a possible outbreak, those experiences can still help and inform Ukrainian health authorities in case of an outbreak – primarily, by ensuring that coronavirus patients are not stigmatized.
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“A subtle message which I think is very important is that people that may be suspected to have coronavirus should not be stigmatized. They are people like all of us. It could happen to you, it could happen to me. It could happen to your neighbor. So, stigma is not the right response. People who are suspected to be sick or sick should be protected. Those who take care of them, their families and neighbors should be protected. And the health system, the health workers really need to be protected. So I think that those messages are very important,” shared Gillette.
And another risk for already-burdened health systems in the Donbas conflict zone is that the coronavirus will “exhaust your health capacity and health services capacity to respond to the coronavirus at the expense of all the other diseases.” While the coronavirus grabs headlines, it doesn’t mean that other health issues disappear as resources are allocated to coronavirus.
“And we know that unfortunately there are a lot of other diseases. We were talking about non-communicable diseases, but we also have issues of diabetes, we have a shortage of cancer patients, we also have cardiovascular disease. So it's very important to ensure that the rest of the healthcare system can continue to deliver. And this seems to be one of the major challenges of this new coronavirus, as we've seen in China, in Italy. I mean, we're not talking about weak health systems, we are talking about very big countries with a solid health system, and where you can reach a saturation level much faster than anyone expects. And this is where we think it's very important to put some attention ensuring every sick person in this country can still access medical services,” explains Gillette.
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Her best advice for preventing the spread of the disease, besides communication, are simply hygienic countermeasures, as the coronavirus is vulnerable to soap.
“Good practices of hygiene are very important. And yes, we are all to remind ourselves how to wash our hands properly. And I know it’s certain to sound a bit stupid, but we all forget, you know that we should not sneeze in certain ways and that we should really wash our hands several times a day.”
/By Romeo Kokriatski