Ukraine waging a war on two fronts

Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak 
Opinion - New Straits Times 
March 8, 2022  


Like all countries, Ukraine was intensely fighting the "invisible" war against the coronavirus prior to the crisis with Russia.

Reportedly, the situation then was not so rosy. Only about half (44.9 per cent) of adult Ukrainians had received full vaccination according to January statistics. And only 131,178 Ukrainians had received a booster dose.

Ukraine's Covid-19 vaccination programme began on Feb 24 last year, but the pace had been "extremely slow compared with other European countries". In the first quarter of last year, only about 230,000 Ukrainians were vaccinated, which is 0.4 per cent of the population.

By comparison, on Sept 13 last year, 50 per cent of the population of neighbouring Poland had been fully vaccinated. In Slovakia, this number was 40 per cent. In Turkey, 47 per cent. In Moldova, more than 21 per cent. 

On that date, only 10,710,944 people in Ukraine had been vaccinated, a mere 18 per cent of the adult population.

By early November last year, 34.5 per cent of the population of neighbouring Romania had been fully vaccinated. In Bulgaria, it was 23.04 per cent. The average full vaccination rate in the European Union was 65.2 per cent then. Interestingly, at about the same time, the full vaccination rate in Russia was about 37 per cent. 

About the same time, Ukraine's Health Ministry announced that 42.4 per cent of its adult population had received at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine and 34.2 per cent were fully vaccinated. On Feb 8 this year, the ministry announced that 50 per cent of the adult population had received at least one dose of vaccine.

Some of the reasons behind the slow vaccination rollout are the lack of vaccines (no vaccines are produced in Ukraine), disinformation on social media about the effects of vaccines (according to an analysis primarily by Russia-backed parties) and strong scepticism among the population.

In March last year, reportedly about half of the population did not plan to get vaccinated. In fact, an August 2021 poll showed 56 per cent of Ukrainians did not plan to get vaccinated, although vaccines from four different manufacturers are free for all Ukrainians.

Data from Nov 3 last year indicated that 11.5 per cent of the population had been vaccinated with Moderna, 17.2 per cent with AstraZeneca, 29.6 per cent with CoronaVac and 41.7 per cent with Pfizer-BioNTech.

Although Ukraine was offered the Russian vaccine Sputnik in February last year, it refused to buy or register for it since "all people entering the country who have been vaccinated by Sputnik have to take a Covid test".

Still, the Ukraine Health Ministry said it planned to vaccinate 70 per cent of the country's adult population by this year, including 80 per cent of the elderly.

In January and February, Ukraine suffered a 555 per cent increase in Covid-19 cases, driven mostly by the Omicron variant, according to a report from the United Nations.

New records in infections were recorded almost every day. Such high numbers are bound to affect the capacity of all parties to fight in the war as the virus spreads.

The pandemic does not care about North Atlantic Treaty Organisation affiliation.

By any account, the "invisible" war in Ukraine seems like a losing proposition.

This month, total Covid-19 cases have gone from 4,809,624 to 5,040,518 and total deaths have gone from 105,505 to 112,459, depending on the sources. Given the current situation, the prospect is not expected to improve.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently said the mass displacement of people in Ukraine will increase Covid-19 transmission, warning that large numbers of people are at risk of severe disease as oxygen supplies are critically low. At least three major oxygen plants in Ukraine had to shut down due to the fighting, according to the WHO.

"Infectious diseases ruthlessly exploit the conditions created by war," a senior adviser at the WHO was quoted as saying at a press briefing in Geneva, highlighting that refugees are particularly vulnerable to severe disease and death in wartime. And medical supplies are currently inaccessible in many parts of the country.

The WHO director-general called for the setting up of a safe humanitarian corridor to deliver critical medical supplies to Ukraine.

He said the mass displacement of people will not only increase Covid-19 transmission, but also put more pressure on healthcare systems, including in neighbouring countries.

"Prior to the conflict, Ukraine experienced a surge of Covid-19 cases," the WHO said. "Low rates of testing since the start of the conflict mean there is likely to be significant undetected transmission coupled with low vaccination coverage.

This increases the risk of large numbers of people developing severe disease. The "invisible" war can eventually spread uncontrollably in Europe and elsewhere.

We have been foolishly fighting wars too many times in an effort to save humanity.

The writer, an NST columnist for more than 20 years, is International Islamic University Malaysia rector