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COVID passes not a priority for border police as Ukraine’s refugee crisis worsens

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By Rebekah Daunt
Refugees that fled the war in Ukraine sit in a car outside the train station in Przemysl, southeastern Poland
Refugees that fled the war in Ukraine sit in a car outside the train station in Przemysl, southeastern Poland   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Daniel Cole   -  

Thousands of refugees arrive in Poland daily, travelling around without masks as they flee the war in Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion began, refugees have been allowed to enter Poland without coronavirus vaccine certificates or proof of negative COVID-19 tests.

The World Health Organisation has expressed concerns that the conflict could negatively impact public health in Ukraine, including the spread of COVID-19.

But the head of the Urban Search and Rescue mission which has been observing and treating many of the refugees in the border town of Medyka, Jean-Claude Cordeau, said that "COVID does not have an as high of an importance in this crisis".

"COVID at this border crossing here in Medyka is obviously not a priority. Not a priority for us, and not a priority for refugees that are arriving." 

"We mainly deal with small children with hypothermia and we treat urgent cases so they can continue with their journey," he said.

Virus worries overshadowed by war

About 60 child cancer patients from Ukraine boarded a medical train Saturday in Medyka, bound for hospitals in Warsaw and elsewhere. 

Medical workers carried some of the children in their arms, on stretchers, and pushed them in wheelchairs at the train station near the Ukrainian border.

Dominik Daszuta, an anesthesiologist from Warsaw Hospital, said the train has transported 120 children with cancer so far.

Refugees feel that worries about the virus have been "overpowered" by the conflict. Before Russia's assault on Ukraine began, the country had a low inoculation rate with just 35% of the population fully vaccinated.

"In my opinion, COVID is a real disease, but after the war began in Ukraine COVID disappeared, because the war is more global and a worse problem for humanity," said Julia Vlasik, a refugee from the western Ukrainian city of Rivne with a population of about 250,000 people.

While Anastasia Utechenko, a twenty-year-old refugee from Kyiv who arrived in Medyka said, "I don't want to say that it is not as serious anymore, it has been overpowered by the war situation." 

"But it is still relevant, of course, and the hospitals are still going to be filled. Hopefully, people will get vaccinated."

'I can't live my life shaking in fear'

The war in Ukraine has forced more than 2.5 million people to flee and seek refuge in other countries, but as Russian troops press on with their offensive, some Ukrainians have decided to return home.

Klara Uliganich, a pensioner, arrived in Hungary with the very first wave of refugees. After spending almost three weeks on the Hungarian side of the border, she said she had decided to go back to her home in Uzhhorod, a western Ukrainian city some distance from the heavy fighting.

"I got a feeling, it's hard to put it into words, I just can't say it. I was born there, that's my home," said Klara.

"We had to leave, but now I am trying to go back and look around. My sons didn't want me to go back, but I'm determined. I'm sure [Russian President Vladimir] Putin won't wait for me with flowers."

"They have not even been able to break into Kyiv yet, and that's far away. OK, they can be there [Uzhhorod] in two days, they have aircraft etc. so it's not an issue for them, but I can't live my life shaking in fear just because the Russians are coming."

"If they come, I'll be a refugee again, that's it," Uliganich said.

So far Hungary has accepted some 235,000 refugees, while 1.5 million people have crossed the border into Poland.

Ukraine's chief prosecutor’s office says at least 85 children have been killed and over 100 wounded since the invasion began on 24 February.