By Bermet Talant
Nov. 30, 2020
The first time Jarno Habicht, head of the World Health Organization’s office in Ukraine, spoke with the Kyiv Post was back in mid-April. The COVID-19 pandemic was just taking hold around the world, and Ukraine was under strict lockdown imposed by the authorities proactively. At the time, the country had about 4,600 cases in total and 116 deaths. Now, as Habicht speaks to the Kyiv Post again seven months later, the situation is very different.
Ukraine is still fighting its first wave of the pandemic. As of Nov. 30, there were over 732,000 coronavirus cases in the country and over half of them were active. The death toll is more than 10 times what it was in April, having reached over 12,300 people.
Testing laboratories have struggled with the spike in demand, and hospitals have reported shortages of beds, medical oxygen and oxygen concentrators and medical workers. And as the winter holidays are approaching, the Ukrainian government is considering imposing a new lockdown.
Habicht warns that the next three to four months will be difficult for the economy and health care. “We are moving to a life-saving mode,” he told the Kyiv Post in an interview on Nov. 24. “We have to save as many lives as possible, and at the same time keep life going, the economy running and schools open.”
This is a challenge. The WHO regularly releases guidance on public health and social measures based upon the virus transmission level that governments can take into consideration. The organization recommends a targeted response at the local level.
Ukraine switched from a so-called “adaptive quarantine” to uniform nationwide measures and introduced a “weekend lockdown” on Nov. 11, ordering non-essential businesses to close on Saturdays and Sundays. The move faced significant resistance from local authorities and business owners, just like the adaptive quarantine in August.
Despite warnings of a looming collapse of the health care system, the Ukrainian authorities were reluctant to re-impose full lockdown, citing its heavy burden on the economy. But as caseloads continued to grow rapidly, they reportedly began to consider a full lockdown before or after New Year’s Eve.
Habicht says Ukraine is not unique in this situation. Israel, Germany, Spain, the UK and other European countries tried to target virus hotspots, but had to switch to some type of nationwide restrictions. Over the past two months, they reimposed partial or full lockdowns and night curfews to fight the virus’ resurgence. In response, anti-lockdown protests broke out.
In many countries, the central and local authorities have been engaged in an ongoing debate over the measures, he says. And the leaders are seeking some kind of compromise. “It is much more complex now than we thought it would be in the beginning of this year,” he says. “We now have to look at the public health and education, public health and the economy, public health and livelihoods.”
Looking at Ukraine’s response to the epidemic, Habicht says additional measures should be considered, but only those that are implementable. “Measures are as good as they are enforced,” he says.
He says there should be more restrictions on social contacts, especially with people outside of one’s household. Essential work should continue, but safety measures for workers should be in place. Remote work should be allowed where it is possible. Keeping in-person learning for as long as possible is crucial.
And, of course, the most basic rules need to be further communicated. “More could be done in explaining to the public why hand washing and masks are important, and why masks have to cover both mouth and nose,” Habicht says.
Habicht also encouraged the Ukrainian authorities to introduce legislation on contact tracing and issue guidance for businesses and citizens for the upcoming winter holidays. “The sooner we have this guidance, the better. We will know how to plan and adjust our lives,” he says. “We need to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Eve but, of course, have to do it differently.”
Habicht stresses the role every individual plays in fighting the pandemic. “It is on us to make a decision not to have large gatherings on holidays, connect with friends and family via video conferences, wear masks correctly, and keep a physical distance.”
It’s not all bad news. Almost a year into the pandemic, scientists, public health professionals and doctors know more about the novel coronavirus, how it spreads, and the disease it causes. The virus spreads quickly in crowded indoor spaces with poor or no ventilation, and measures such as avoiding such settings, maintaining physical distance and using masks help prevent transmission.
Testing has improved and increased, and contact tracing proved effective in detecting and isolating cases in countries where it was implemented. In November, three vaccine developers — Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca/Oxford University — reported success in last-stage human trials, boosting hopes that an effective COVID-19 vaccine could be available next year.
Habicht says he is optimistic. The WHO is waiting for the vaccine authorization by national and regional regulatory agencies where drugmakers have to apply for approval. (On Nov. 30, it was reported that Moderna had applied to the US Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization of its vaccine.)
At the moment, the WHO, UNICEF (the United Nations agency) and other partners are developing a global distribution plan for the future vaccine under COVAX, an international initiative to provide equal access to a safe vaccine to all countries regardless of their income. The program aims to distribute two billion doses by the end of 2021, and each participating country can get doses for 20% of their population. The first people to receive the vaccine will be frontline and healthcare workers and vulnerable groups such as those with chronic diseases and the elderly.
Over 180 countries have joined the initiative, including Ukraine. Currently, they are developing their own vaccination plans.
Ukraine is hoping to receive eight million doses of the vaccine next year under the COVAX program. The population of Ukraine is between 37 and 42 million people.
Habicht says there is still a question of how many people will be willing to get a vaccine when it becomes widely available beyond the first-priority groups. “The latest data shows that 58% of Ukrainians believe that a vaccine can help with the outbreak. It is good that over half of the population is thinking about it,” he says, adding there is still “something to work on.”
But vaccines alone can’t stop the pandemic, Habicht says. Public health and social measures have to be in place, hospitals must be prepared, and contact tracing must be implemented. “Getting out of the pandemic
depends not only on the epidemiological situation but on how well we adjust and enforce certain measures,” he says. “COVID-19 will stay with us for a while, not only as a disease but in our minds, in the way we work and talk to families.”