As Ukraine shuts down, its citizens come to terms with coronavirus

Ukraine is shutting down amid the coronavirus outbreak
Ukraine is shutting down amid the coronavirus outbreak Copyright Emil Filtenborg
By Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert
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The long shadow of the Soviet Union and mistrust of politicians means some Ukrainians are sceptical about the coronavirus outbreak - but one expert says that will soon change


Ukraine is slowly shutting down. Bars and restaurants, usually full of life, are almost empty or completely closed, because of a recent ban imposed by the country's government to close everything except pharmacies, banks, and supermarkets.

Every dawn brings new measures to stop or limit the spread of coronavirus and restrictions changes rapidly, but while some Ukrainians are worried and panicking, others are taking it overwhelmingly well, compared to other countries around the globe.

Some worry more about the economic effects of the quarantine.

"I don't see a reason for panic now," says Sergei Gikaviy, 36, from Kyiv, who owns a small business repairing phones.

"I do support what the government is doing, but I worry about the economy. We would like to have a better understanding of why these things are happening. I had to close my small business because of the threat of the virus."

Sergei Gikaviy and his wife Anna, 31, are also sceptical about whether the Ukrainian government is telling the truth about the number of infected in the country. The government has recorded a total of 16 cases with two deaths, but Sergei Gikaviy is certain that the real number is much higher, but he sees no reason to panic.

Many Ukrainians must feel the same way. Streets are emptier than before the virus broke out, but there is still plenty of life, and many mothers spend days in the parks with their children running around. On the outskirts of Kyiv, flower shops are still open despite the ban, and you can also get a haircut. Not many owners want to speak to reporters, but a local bar owner explained how the ban affects his business and that he now started to sell plastic cups with beer and vodka to go. It is still allowed to sell take away food, according to the authorities.

A divide between classes

Ukraine has, like other countries, seen some panic buying in the supermarkets where people hunt for food and toilet paper, but it has only been sporadic, and most supermarkets still have plenty of supplies. The Ukrainian government has been telling people to stay inside and is considering imposing a state of emergency. But it has not done so at this point. Instead, the government has closed metros, trains and restricted the number of bus passengers. 

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the nation on Monday, saying that the government "will act in a tough, urgent, perhaps unpopular manner" to protect its citizens.

However, some say it is too much.

"The quarantine is very popular among some people, but some people don't want limits on their ordinary lives," says Aleksey Jakubin, associate professor at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, "They are worried about the economy. Many people live paycheck to paycheck, and this quarantine and potential emergency law, will have a huge influence on their daily life."

He explains that Ukrainians have a limited public safety net compared to Western Europe, and Ukrainians' perception of the seriousness of the coronavirus is primarily determined by how much money they have.

"We have a divide between classes. The people with not so much money are the majority, and the economy is much more important for them than quarantine," Jakubin says, "We also have people who want the government to do more, but they are a minority. We, therefore, see a lot of opposition to the government's steps to close the metros in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Dnipro – it will be hard for people to get around."

Last planes arrive in Ukraine

Ukraine closed air travel Tuesday morning, and many Ukrainians have flocked back to their homeland last minute from overseas. They represent Ukrainians who are better off, according to Jakubin, and Euronews also recorded a graver approach to the virus among some of the last passengers to arrive back in Ukraine.

"It is good that the president closes our country. The situation is not good here," says 35-year-old Vlada Lialina, who works in a beauty shop in Dubai and arrived in Kyiv Monday evening on one of the last planes, "I am, of course, unhappy that I have to return from Dubai. But still, we need to take care of our citizens. It is the most important thing. Economy comes second."

Emil Filtenborg
Travel has been restricted in Ukraine due to coronavirusEmil Filtenborg

She believes that the government's response is adequate, and she praises its decision to close most shops and public transportation. Passengers arriving from Hurghada and Madrid last-minute share similar views.

"I think that these steps (taken by the government) are necessary to improve the situation and not to allow the virus to progress in this nation," says 19-year-old Nick Gupal at the airport after his arrival from France via Madrid, where he is an exchange student at Sophia Antipolis University in Nice, "Those are the steps that we need to take. We have to accept them because it will make it easier in the future."

Panic before – but not now

In 2009, Ukraine experienced some of the worsts outbreaks of swine flu in Europe, where almost two million Ukrainians fell ill, and around 500 people lost their lives. People responded with panic back then, Jakubin explains, but it is different from coronavirus so far, and it has something to do with the lower amount of reported cases.


"But people also have a good memory. They remember what happened in 2009 when politicians made it seem more dangerous than the population experienced it. People are worried about manipulation, and they, therefore, focus on their own problems," Jakubin explains and points out that people in Ukraine are very sceptical towards authorities, which is partly due to an old legacy from the Soviet Union.

"This could, of course, be a reason for panic, but instead, we see that people take it easy. Ukrainians know that local elections are held this year and that politicians could use this crisis for their advantage," he says and points out that it is a problem for the Ukrainian president, who will need people to follow his directions and stay at home.

Zelensky said in his address to the nation that all people should "stay home, except for the need to buy food or pharmaceuticals", but not all are willing to follow his suggestion.

Sergei Gikaviy and his wife Anna are also sceptical of the government. While they have decided to follow the government's guidelines, they lack trust.

"We only go out to buy food, but we still do not trust the professionals so much," says Sergei Gikaviy, who closed his small shop repairing phones, "Can we believe that the government or a judge tells the truth when things often do not apply to themselves?"


Reality will hit sooner or later

More than 219,000 cases of coronavirus have been detected worldwide, with more than 8,900 deaths with 85,000 recovered, according to Jakubin also expects that Ukrainian citizens will take coronavirus more seriously when the number of cases rises further. But it might take some time because Ukrainians have more significant problems with measles, tuberculosis, and a war, affecting more people's lives, he says. More than 35,000 Ukrainians have tuberculosis, and there was over 57,000 cases of measles in Ukraine in 2019, according to the World Health Organization.

Sergii Mirnyi, who was a part of the Soviet Army, agrees. He is former liquidator who cleaned up after the Chernobyl disaster and was the platoon commander of Chornobyl radiation reconnaissance. He sees many similarities between the 1986 Chernobyl accident and coronavirus in the way people react to the threat, he explains to Euronews.

"Coronavirus is also danger that we cannot see," says Mirnyi, who has since has worked on expanding the understanding of Chernobyl as both owner of a tourist company and as a researcher.

"The virus is, of course, different from the issue of radiation, but there are similarities when it comes to people's social and psychological reactions. Both are not easy to see and understand for people," he says.

"There are many rumours about coronavirus. The same thing happened with Chernobyl," he says, "People only took Chernobyl seriously when they could see its effects. While Chernobyl was a much bigger catastrophe, the two things are similar, because we cannot see the enemy. If - God forbid - dozens of deaths will come to Ukraine from corona, people will start to take it very seriously."

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