It has been four weeks since the first COVID-19 case was registered in Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities have moved rapidly and robustly to respond to the unprecedented crisis triggered by the pandemic, putting in place measures to tackle what is proving to be the biggest public health challenge in decades. While the everyday lives of individuals in Kyiv and elsewhere have been disrupted by the outbreak response and subsequent restrictions, those living in Eastern Ukraine have seen their situation significantly worsen, now exposed to a double threat: coronavirus and war.
As the conflict in Eastern Ukraine hits its six-year landmark, the attention of the Government of Ukraine and the international community, and their efforts to better protect civilians, must not waver. On the contrary, the protection of civilians needs to be prioritized and resourced. Over the past few weeks, CIVIC has been in regular contact with community members in conflict-affected areas located along the contact line, and it is clear the current situation has led them to be exposed to increased risks. With the ongoing threat of fighting and the emerging threat of COVID-19, we have heard civilians say, “we need masks, pharmacies, and doctors,” but also, “we are so scared…the explosions are too loud.”
Here are some more of the concerns raised by civilians quarantined in Eastern Ukraine:
First, of course, we have heard communities formulate new needs, including access to medical care and medical supplies. “The city is lacking disinfectants and masks. If they are supplied in the pharmacy people buy them immediately, and again the city doesn’t have them…Hospitals are ready for the first wave of patients, but still there is a need for more doctors, masks, gowns, gloves, and hand sanitizers. So far we don’t have confirmed cases of COVID here, therefore we are not panicking,”,” says the head of the Military-Civil Administration of Krasnohorivka, Donetsk region.
A female civilian from Triohizbenka, Luhansk oblast, echoes: “We live far from people, abide with the quarantine, but when we visit the food store we can’t even put on a mask. We can’t buy it here.” She also expressed her concern about lack of personal protective equipment (masks, disinfectants, gowns) for village doctors.
Loss of income and economic repercussions resulting from the outbreak response also were high on the list of concerns community members raised to CIVIC. The same woman from Triohizbenka, Luhansk oblast, explained that the most vulnerable civilians, in addition to concerns over their health due to the pandemic, were worried about the growing prices of some food items, such as sugar, cereals, and lemons. This has been especially hard for retired persons whose pensions are very small. A Military-Civil Administration official from a small town in Donetsk region shared that, so far, the social payments are being made in a timely manner, although there is growing concern of loss of income during the quarantine.
Access to cash is also becoming an issue. “There is no ATM in the village. Some people need to withdraw their salaries, others their social benefits. People used to go by bus to the nearest city and take the cash out from the ATMs there, but now, during the quarantine, there is no social transport connection with other settlements. The only thing left to do is to drive to the city by private car, but of course not everybody has such a possibility,” says the Deputy Head of the village council of Mykolaivka, Donetsk oblast.
There is also a concern that restrictions of movement will have consequences on the livelihood of those who depend on agriculture for income. A female community activist from Triohizbenka shares: “In our village almost everybody, even pensioners, plant crops, set up greenhouses to be able to sell vegetables and earn some money…Now it’s difficult to imagine how to sell vegetables, they go bad quickly. And we can’t take them to the market ourselves, not everyone has a car, buses are absent…And now, again, I feel uncertain and fear for the future of my children.”
But the most significant challenge faced by civilians in Eastern Ukraine, which has been present for more than six years and does not show signs of abating, is the direct physical threat caused by daily shelling, small arms fire, mines, and other unexploded ordinance. For many civilians, this threat remains their primary concern.
“In addition to the epidemic and the strict quarantine regime in the village, the shelling also continues constantly near the village. For two consecutive days loud explosions have been heard in the village, including heavy artillery explosions. We hold on, support each other as much as we can,” says a female community activist and director of the general secondary school of Hranitne, Donetsk oblast.
A teacher living in a village close to Zolote, Luhansk oblast, answers the question of one of CIVIC’s Protection Officers as to how they cope during the quarantine: “You ask how we are doing? They shoot, Katya, they shoot! Today in the morning there were so loud explosions, we didn’t know what to do. Our people are so much hit by the war for all these years, so scared, that the quarantine, the epidemics and restrictions, are felt as a norm if compared to the losses, explosions, and emotional nervousness. There are more conflicts now – military entered a food store, who started the conversation, the locals or the military, it doesn’t matter now, but they started fighting! Because of tension, or because of helplessness, or because of despair… People here are very poor, and are concerned now again how they will be surviving, when this all will end.”
With all these concerns – both new and old – in mind, CIVIC is doing everything it can to help communities along the contact line find ways to pass on their need for medical supplies to the World Health Organization, UN OCHA, Red Cross, and other local and international NGOs, but also to the military. With funding from the EU and Federal Foreign Office of Germany, we have also started our work on strengthening dialogue between the Ukrainian military and civilians so that, in the future, civilians can communicate directly to raise their protection concerns and resolve such issues on their own, without CIVIC’s help.
While the Government of Ukraine is developing response measures, and the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) are supporting the implementation and enforcement of these measures in the Joint Forces Operations area, the AFU should:
- Continue to exercise restraint in the use of force wherever the military is being requested to enforce response measures;
- Take all necessary precautionary measures to protect military personnel from COVID-19, and;
- Observe very strictly the “do no harm” principle so that the behavior and presence of military personnel does not contribute to further spreading the outbreak.
Donors need to also think ahead, and while supporting new urgent measures directly related to fighting the pandemic, ensure that programs aimed at providing essential assistance and addressing protection needs of civilians along the contact line are being adequately prioritized and resourced. Funding of activities that aim at providing livelihood opportunities and strengthening social protection measures will be essential to address more acute protection gaps.
Nobody can definitively answer the question of when the conflict in Eastern Ukraine will end. However, the Ukrainian government, the AFU, and the international community (including donors) need to remember that with the spread of COVID-19, civilians along the contact line are forced to struggle with a double threat. The consequences of the pandemic will be dire for the whole country, but for the especially vulnerable civilians in Eastern Ukraine, this global health crisis poses an additional threat to their safety. It is important to keep remembering the heightened fragility of conflict-affected civilians in Ukraine and beyond – and make sure they do not suffer in silence. At CIVIC, we want to give these civilians a voice.
This material has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.