Swine Flu Panic Grips Ukraine Electioneering with Tamiflu and Surgical Masks
Swine flu is spreading rapidly in Ukraine: 200,000 sick, 67 deaths and a dramatic call for foreign help. President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko were caught by surprise -- but with an eye on the presidential elections they are competing to portray themselves as their country's saviors.
When Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadoviy receives guests at his office these days, he always pulls a surgical mask over his face -- safe is safe. "We have applied a quarantine in the city -- that's the most effective means of keeping people from getting infected with swine flu," he says.
Schools and daycare centers have been closed. Flyers have been passed out informing people how to act during the pandemic. And people have been asked to wear protective surgical masks when using buses, trains and taxis. "Right now we're getting four times more emergency calls than usual," says Sadoviy. "Normally we get 300, but right now it's 1,200 a day. And doctors are also dropping out -- one in 10 people in the medical profession is ill."
Across Ukraine, 200,000 people have been infected, according to official statistics. More than 60 have already died from swine flu. Hardest hit has been the Lviv region in the western-most part of Ukraine, which has literally been swamped by the flu wave. At least 70,000 people have been infected and 1,000 are being treated in hospitals.
The government, clearly surprised by the force of the epidemic, reacted with fervor. Nine provinces have been placed under quarantine and Ukrainian Health Minister Vasyl Kniazevych says the measures could be "expanded to other parts of the country at any time."
President Viktor Yushchenko made a dramatic appeal for foreign help over the weekend. Ukraine was not capable of dealing alone with the virus, which is being presented as a threat to "national security." Poland and Slovakia have already responded and sent 200,000 surgical masks.
Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has advised anyone who can no longer get a hold of a mask to devise some kind of mouth protection. It is advice that many Ukrainians are obviously following. The newspaper Kommersant reports that the streets of the capital Kiev are unusually empty and that people are covering their mouths and noses with cloths or bandages. The authorities are considering holding Wednesday's Champions League match between the local team, Dynamo Kiev and Inter Milan behind closed doors so that crowds of supporters don't infect each other.
"At the moment there are two waves of flu that are coming together: The normal seasonal flu and the swine flu," Tatiana Bakhteyeva, the chair of the Ukrainian parliamentary health committee, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Hundreds of thousands are already ill, 7,000 are being treated in hospital, half of whom are children. Sixty-seven people have already died, seven of them today."
WHO Heads to Kiev
It is not easy to determine how many of the deaths and infections are actually caused by the H1N1 virus. The World Health Organisation is also at a loss. "We have to get a picture of the situation first," a spokeswoman told SPIEGEL ONLINE. A WHO delegation was expected in Kiev late on Monday evening and is to travel to the affected areas.
"The west of the country is so badly affected because there was a first frost there already at the end of September," Bakhteyeva explains. She is a member of the Party of the Regions which is strongest in the east of Ukraine. "The cold snap caught people unprepared and many had not started putting on their central heating and even today many apartments are still cold."
Additionally, Bakhteyeva speculates, there are many West Ukrainians who work in Poland and Romania over the summer and who, upon their return home, have brought the pathogen back with them. Then she evokes the need for national unity: All of the political powers-that-be must stand together. However, only a short time later she happily rails against the president and the prime minister in Kiev because they didn't prepare the nation for swine flu despite earlier warnings. "The administration is to blame," she says. "Now the pharmacy shelves are empty."
Politicians Playing Nurse To Increase Election Chances
A good two months before the presidential elections, the state of Ukrainian national unity leaves a lot to be desired. Due to the danger of infection a lot of the candidates' campaign appearances have been cancelled. Nonetheless they are still managing to conduct their election campaigns -- which seem to comprise more mudslinging than any actual political debate -- during this dramatic state of affairs.
For example, Viktor Yanukovych, the leading candidate for the Russian-friendly party, Party of Regions, recently accused Prime Minister Tymoshenko of irresponsibly calling her followers to party meetings even though she had been forewarned about the dangers of infection. Meanwhile, President Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, who are also competing for the nation's highest office, are trying to make themselves look like efficient managers in this crisis.
On Monday night, Tymoshenko rushed to Kiev's airport, Borispol, to personally greet an Antonov freight plane bearing tons of the flu medication, Tamiflu, from Switzerland. Yushchenko was quick to follow her there -- then he reported on his Web site that he wanted to congratulate the country for getting the badly needed medication delivered during such tough times.
Some observers believe that a lot of the excitement about rising rates of illness is mainly due to electioneering. In fact, the incidence of illness is not really any worse than the usual seasonal rate of flu infection, Kost Bondarenko, the director of the Kiev Institute for Management Problems, told the Russian daily newspaper Trud. It's just that, according to Bondarenko, there are a lot of politicians out there who want to look like the saviors of a flu-troubled nation.