Accessibility links

Breaking News

Some Citizens Chafe, Businesses Push Back As COVID-19 Lockdown Lengthens In Ukraine

People walk their dogs past a sculpture wearing a protective mask in a park in central Kyiv.
People walk their dogs past a sculpture wearing a protective mask in a park in central Kyiv.

KYIV -- Bohdan Starchenko’s job -- head barman at Hangover, a popular Kyiv nightclub -- is hardly one conducive to social distancing. And when Ukraine first introduced self-isolation measures on March 12, he suddenly lost it, at least temporarily: the club closed its doors and the entire staff was sent on unpaid leave.

Gyms were shuttered, too, so he could not work out every day like he used to. He was stuck at home, bored, and with no income.

As long weeks of lockdown have passed, though, Starchenko hasn't been all that locked down: He has registered as a courier for a delivery service and a driver for Uber, and last week he took 11 travelers from the Belarusian border to Kyiv in a minibus he rented from a friend, despite a rule mandating no more than two people traveling in cars, except taxis.

With most public transport closed all over the country, cars are the only way to get a ride from the few border crossings where Ukrainians are still allowed to return to their country on foot. The trip cost each rider the equivalent of $60 and was organized on social media.

"I am making close to my income before the lockdown -- but without putting in the night hours," Starchenko says. He is also happy to feel useful and to have a social life again, even if it means flouting social-distancing rules in place as part of the lockdown measures.

Ukrainians have started to adapt to the lockdowns in many different ways -- some of them involving violating, or at least pushing, the limits on travel, commerce, and social interaction. Businesspeople are grumbling about measures that have curbed their activity and are demanding a break from the government, which continues to insist on strict if selectively applied restrictions.

Officially, self-isolation orders and other restrictions will start to be relaxed after May 11, provided that the daily rate of new infections remains under 5 percent for the 10 days before that.

But streets in Ukraine are already simmering with activity: road traffic has been getting visibly busier, and people are out doing errands, on springtime walks -- or just out.

People walk in Kyiv's Kyoto Park on April 27.
People walk in Kyiv's Kyoto Park on April 27.

On the last weekend in April, EpicentrK, a home-and-garden store on the outskirts of Kyiv, was buzzing with visitors picking up lettuce seeds or wandering the bathroom accessories aisles -- although technically only food stores and pharmacies were allowed to remain open at that time.

Experts and opinion polls suggest many Ukrainians have lost some of their initial concerns about the spread of the virus, making them bolder when it comes to bending or breaking lockdown rules, or simply venturing out in ways that do not violate the restrictions.

"People were very frightened initially, partially because of their perception of the health-care system," says Hlib Vyshlinskiy, executive director of the Center for Economic Strategy, a think tank. "Many were afraid to end up in hospitals even if they were in low-risk groups. They thought that if COVID-19 didn't kill them, the hospitals would."

But that fear seems to have faded. About 54 percent of respondents to a poll conducted last week by the Research & Branding Group, based in Kyiv, said that lockdown measures were "absolutely necessary," compared to 72 percent in the week of March 28-April 3.

The number of people who said they were observing mandatory self-isolation measures, such as remote work and not leaving home without an acute need, has also started to decline.

Some measures remain more popular, such as wearing masks or face coverings and frequent handwashing. According to the same poll, 90 and 81 percent were taking these precautions.

A medical worker checks the temperature of a passenger at a checkpoint outside the city of Lviv.
A medical worker checks the temperature of a passenger at a checkpoint outside the city of Lviv.

Heal Thyself?

By the end of April, the official number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Ukraine exceeded 10,000, with more than 260 deaths.

The authorities started to shut down public activities when the country of 44 million had only three confirmed coronavirus infections. But despite that arguably early start, personnel moves made by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy suggest that he, for one, has felt that the country's health-care system, or the officials in charge of it, have managed the anti-pandemic effort poorly.

Since early March, he has fired and hired two health ministers, including one who lasted 26 days. And on April 28 he said that the Health Ministry will finally have to take charge of the battle against the coronavirus, which until then was led largely by the president's office with the help of a crisis team that had met daily since the pandemic hit Ukraine.

"You have to be the ones ensuring the supply of masks, respirators, protective suits, artificial lung ventilators, and all of the necessary things so that hospitals, patients, and healthy people have enough of everything and can protect themselves from COVID-19," Zelenskiy told Health Minister Maksym Stepanov.

Ukraine has had recurring problems with procurement of protective equipment and tests through the central government system overseen by the Health Ministry.

Accusations that former minister Ilya Yemets was blocking vital procurement efforts may have led to his swift dismissal in late March, but more procurement scandals followed.

The state company responsible for supplies, National Procurement of Ukraine, opened its first tender on April 10 -- seeking to buy 90,000 full-body protective suits for doctors, based on specifications provided by the ministry. But after the tender was over the minister who replaced Yemets, Stepanov, was accused of blocking that purchase as well.

National Procurement director Arsen Zhumadilov said the minister refused to sign off on the deal after he learned the name of the winning company, the Ukrainian firm Textile-Contact.

The firm said it was ready to deliver the first batch of certified suits on April 21, at a price of 245 hryvnyas ($9) apiece. Instead, the Health Ministry organized a new tender, circumventing the procurement system established to curtail corruption, and bought Chinese suits through a Ukrainian intermediary, at about twice the price and with delivery dates in May.

Textile-Contact Director Oleksandr Sokolovskiy called the situation a "catastrophe," saying that the company spent 10 million hryvnyas ($370,000) buying fabric and making an initial batch of 23,000 suits for doctors after it won the tender -- and now could face bankruptcy.

The ministry's turnabout fueled widespread accusations of corruption. "We consider this to be a theft of public money, and the most disgusting thing is that the president's office stands by this procurement," says Vitaliy Shabunin, head of the management board at the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a watchdog group in Kyiv.

Stepanov defended his move at an online briefing on April 27, saying the suits that were purchased were of superior quality.

Such delays may be taking their toll.

As of April 27, nearly 1,750 medical workers had tested positive for COVID-19, one-fifth of all confirmed cases, according to the Health Ministry. "We have one of the highest rates of infections for medical workers in the world. This is a consequence of lacking personal protective gear," Zhumadilov said.

Selective Enforcement

Meanwhile, critics charge that the authorities have exacerbated the COVID-19 crisis by enforcing restrictions selectively.

Despite a blanket ban of public gatherings of more than two people, photos released by local media appeared to show dozens people of standing shoulder-to-shoulder at Orthodox Easter church ceremonies on April 19, often without protective masks.

"This is a typical reaction of politicians: How can we turn the believers against ourselves if they are going to be voting for us later," Vyshlinskiy says.

After Easter, the government pushed the end of the lockdown from April 24 to May 11 and warned that a new wave of infections should be expected. It said the peak of the epidemic in Ukraine was likely to come in early May rather than in April, as previously forecast.

That made Serhiy Badritdinov unhappy. The CEO of Intertop says the retail group closed more than 130 footwear and fashion stores in 27 Ukrainian cities on account of the lockdown, and online sales have not been brisk.

"America and the European countries are starting to relax [restrictions], but here the government keeps pushing the peak back," Badritdinov said in an online meeting of a business association on April 22. "I hope the government realizes that the economy is also people's health, in the long term."

Some businesses have started pushing back on restrictions -- and finding a government ready to give.

Small business workers demand the government stop the lockdown in Kyiv on April 29.
Small business workers demand the government stop the lockdown in Kyiv on April 29.

Market traders have protested in several cities and towns in recent weeks.

In the southwestern city of Chernivtsi, dozens of stall owners pushed the local government to open up, complaining that small businesses were treated unfairly compared to large supermarket chains, which are allowed to stay open.

"If I had a job, I would be as calm as you," one Chernivtsi resident screamed at an official who came out of his office to explain the government’s instructions.

In Ukraine's southern Kherson region, some 250 small farmers who are unable to sell their produce blocked a road, demanding that the government open markets and revise policies for importing fresh vegetables.

"We have plenty of our own produce. We're practically giving it away for free, just take it," one farmer told 1+1 TV channel.

People plant potatoes not far from the western city of Lviv on April 10.
People plant potatoes not far from the western city of Lviv on April 10.

On April 29, small business owners in Kyiv followed suit, blocking a major road in the government quarter to protest what they see as unreasonable and unfair limitations on their work while big business was still allowed to operate.

After this wave of protests, Zelenskiy instructed his cabinet to open 280 markets across the country as of May 1 and set up new health-care regulations for them.

"Food markets are extremely important for the survival and nutrition of many citizens. We need to understand how to allow them to work safely. Let's set up clear rules and let's allow them to open,” Zelenskiy told Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal in televised comments on April 27. "We need to learn to live and work in new conditions."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.