Friday, November 6, 2009
Ukraine is in the midst of what some might call swine-flu hysteria. The country is in virtual lockdown mode, with the government closing schools, universities and movie theaters and banning all public gatherings until the end of November. Pharmacies have run out of protective masks; those who missed the rush are improvising with scarves or homemade facsimiles. And rumors are running rampant, much as they did during Soviet times when the authorities tried to cover up disasters like the Chernobyl nuclear-plant meltdown. “We are worried that the swine flu has mutated and is killing scores of people,” says Nina Sokolovska as she stands in line at a pharmacy.
To be sure, flu is spreading in Ukraine, with the government reporting more than 600,000 cases in the last week. The Health Ministry said Thursday that 95 people have died from the flu or respiratory infections, although it’s uncertain how many of these deaths have been caused by the H1N1 virus and how many have been the result of seasonal flu. The World Health Organization says it’s safe to assume the H1N1 virus is widespread.
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Given the persistent rumors and the country’s volatile political situation, however, some Ukrainians have suggested that the gravity of the situation is being exaggerated by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for political gain ahead of the January presidential elections. “What has happened is hysteria and panic, which is being provoked,” says Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a presidential candidate currently running third in the polls. He accused Tymoshenko of whipping up a frenzy to distract people from the government’s failings. “Is anyone talking about wages? No. Is anyone talking about the 4 million unemployed? No. Is anyone talking about the gas we haven’t paid for? No,” he says. The media have also questioned Tymoshenko’s motives. A headline on one Ukrainian news website, Ukrayinska Pravda, read: “Who needs swine flu and who needs a high rating?”
Others are taking the flu pandemic more seriously and are blaming Tymoshenko for mishandling the government’s response efforts. Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the opposition and front-runner in the presidential race, has called for the Health Minister to be fired and accused Tymoshenko of putting people’s health at risk by launching her own presidential campaign with a rally just six days before the ban on public gatherings was announced. “Tymoshenko knew she shouldn’t bring such a large number of people to Kiev. It was a feast at the time of a plague,” he says. Current President Viktor Yushchenko — Tymoshenko’s former partner in the 2004 Orange Revolution and now her bitter rival — also attacked her for holding a campaign rally, saying it was “criminal irresponsibility” if it allowed the disease to spread.
This article was posted: Friday, November 6, 2009 at 10:07 am