Ukraine’s Coronavirus Cases Exceed One Million

Ukraine’s coronavirus case-count surpassed 1 million, pushing the country past a grim benchmark as its dilapidated health-care system struggles to contain a pre-holiday surge in the disease.

Despite mobilizing its resources when the disease first struck in March, including establishing special wards and retraining health workers to treat Covid-19 patients, hospitals are at risk of being overrun. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government has also tried to walk a fine line between fighting the virus without a repeat of the economic damage wreaked by a strict spring lockdown.

The former Soviet state of 42 million people reported 11,490 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total to 1,001,132, Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said on Facebook. The death toll increased by 223 people to 17,395.

“The health system is under exceptional strain,” said Lotta Sylwander, Ukraine’s representative at Unicef, the UN agency that’s the world’s leading vaccine provider. “It is going to get worse and worse.”

As of last week, only about a third of the 63,680 beds available for coronavirus patients were vacant, but that’s too few for new cases, according to Unicef. Another issue is the “huge need” for oxygen and more qualified staff. Hospitals are also struggling to provide protection for doctors and nurses, hundreds of whom have died from the virus.

“Nurses are overworked, overburdened and they often have to take decisions that should be made by well-informed and very trained doctors,” Sylwander said. “It’s nurses and nurses’ aids that have to bear the brunt of the Covid strain.”

Ukraine will tighten its social-distancing restrictions for about two weeks starting on Jan. 8 after Orthodox Christmas.

‘Dangerous Strategy’

The government imposed mild social-distancing restrictions throughout the fall despite rapidly growing case numbers, and enforcement of the measures was lax. To avoid a complete economic lockdown, the government has instead focused on adding more hospital beds.

But that’s a “dangerous strategy,” according to Pavlo Kovtonyuk, head of the health-care economic department at the Kyiv School of Economics. “This isn’t an unlimited resource, and the number of beds does not mean that there’s always real help where it’s most needed.”

Ukraine also tests the lowest number of people per capita for the virus in Europe, according to Sylwander. Authorities usually only registering cases of those who are already obviously sick, Kovtonyuk said.

Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told parliament last week that the increase in new cases had reached a plateau, while Zelenskiy said the situation was looking more positive. But with no lockdown and weak testing, authorities have no way to stop the contagion’s spread and there are probably many more cases than officially announced, according to Kovtonyuk and Sylwander.

“Because the testing is low and tracing non-existent, there are probably many more cases than the official figures,” Sylwander said.

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