BMB Ukraine: Coronavirus Fears Spark Panic in Ukraine

Column published in the February 21 issue of BMB Ukraine.

Fabrice Deprez is the managing editor and writer of BMB Ukraine, a weekly brief focused on political developments in Ukraine. You can subscribe here.

The arrival in Ukraine of a plane evacuating 45 Ukrainians and 27 foreigners from the Chinese city of Wuhan sparked a wave of panic across the country, as locals in several regions blocked roads and hospitals out of fear that the evacuees would be quarantined next to them (Forbes).

Tension concentrated on February 20 on the small town of Novi Sanzhary, in central Ukraine, where the medical center in which the two-weeks quarantine would unfold is located: local residents threw stones at the buses transporting the evacuees, and clashes with law enforcement ended with 10 police officers injured and 24 protesters arrested (NV). To get a sense of how big of a deal this is in Ukraine right now, not only did the president made a (rather unsuccessful) statement calling for people to stay calm, but both the Interior minister Arsen Avakov and Prime minister Oleksiy Honcharuk travelled to Novi Sanzhary.

The scenes have been surreal, and reflect a deep-seated distrust of the country’s healthcare system that is rooted in disinformation: back in 2008, the death of a 17-year-old, which happened a day after he received a measles vaccine but was unrelated to the vaccine, sparked a huge wave of rumors that led to vaccination rates plunging from 97% of 1-year-olds in 2007 to 56% in 2010 (Science mag). Yesterday, fake claims about coronavirus cases having been detected in the country also fueled panic (Buzzfeed News). On top of this, Ukrainian authorities failed to communicate effectively about the arrival of the evacuees, letting social media feverishly discuss where the plan transporting them would land.

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