Upon landing at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport on Sunday afternoon, I was met by Ukrainian passport-control personnel in surgical masks.
I suddenly noticed that a number of people on line were also wearing masks of various sizes and designs. (Click
for a photo gallery of swine flu in Eastern Europe.)
Not to be outdone, I pulled out my mask and promptly donned it -- after all I was surrounded by hundreds of people who had disembarked from Turkey, the United States, Russia, and other exotic ports of call.
You could never be too sure and, after all, an epidemic and a quarantine should be taken seriously.
The young woman who checked my passport insisted that I show her my face. Convinced that I was who I said I was, she energetically stamped my passport and handed it back to me. Her face remained hidden behind her mask and her eyes did not smile.
Going to work on Monday morning, the city seemed to be strangely empty -- just a few people walking about, but only a handful compared to Kyiv normally.
Reading the papers and web, swine flu stories predominated. I was astounded by the amount of hysteria and panic.
As usual, the president and the prime minister were trying to outdo each other. Suddenly the flu was political, and in Ukraine, where everything is political, it was super political. The weekend talk shows were full of it.
A shipment of antiviral medication Tamiflu
arrived during the night and there to receive it was Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, along with Ukraine’s new Foreign Minister Petro Poroshenko.
President Viktor Yushchenko has asked Ukraine’s neighbors, along with NATO, the United States, and the EU for help with the emergency.
The rumor mill, too, was working overtime. One of our colleagues arrived and with great conviction announced that 10 people had died from “lung plague” on the other bank of the capital’s river.
The pharmacies have no medicines left, announced someone else. Another said that their mother had tried to buy some Ukrainian medicine for her blood pressure but could not, as the pharmacy was only selling expensive imported foreign medicines.
The day continued in a similar vein. An opposition politician, the deputy chairman of the parliamentary health committee and a guest on our program, announced that the government had behaved incompetently and called on the health minister to resign.
He was ready to push through a bill calling for ”extreme measures” to be taken to stop the flu epidemic. When pressed for specifics, he said that the Defense and Emergency Situations ministries should mobilize their field hospitals to accommodate the sick and raise the salaries of doctors who are treating flu patients.
But there is no shortage of hospital space yet, I said, although this didn't seem to matter much.
In western Ukraine, where people had in fact died from regular influenza and some from swine flu, we heard reports that the pharmacies were empty.
We decided to go and check out the situation in Kyiv. At a pharmacy around the corner from our bureau, all the personnel were wearing surgical masks.
We asked the pharmacy director about the shortage of medicines. She admitted that they were out of certain medicines because last week they had been ordered to send them to Ternopil Province, the area where the flu outbreak began.
She seemed quite tired and called the situation an “epidemic of psychosis.” “This is a regular flu outbreak, no different from any other that we’ve had every year since I remember,” she said. “I don’t understand why the politicians are whipping up such hysteria about this.”
The salesperson at another nearby pharmacy refused to speak to us, saying that she had been instructed not to talk to any media. But are there more people buying flu medicines, I asked?
See for yourself, she said, gesturing to the customers behind me. There were three people, two of which were very jolly and looking for masks. “We’re going to stop the flu with alcohol and sex,” said one of the young man, upon learning that there were no masks left.
Ukraine hasn’t got the facilities to ascertain whether all the flu deaths so far were in fact brought on by swine flu. It relies on a laboratory in London to conduct the appropriate tests.
As a rule Ukrainians have a rather hypochondriac society. I’m always amazed how much they self-medicate themselves. Many drugs that require a prescription in the West are sold here over the counter. People seem to treat their aches, pains, and illnesses almost as hobbies; they look after them and cultivate them to some extent.
Every year for as long as I can remember there have been influenza epidemics in the country. Schools close, kids are sent home, people die. But how many? We haven’t been able to get this information yet, but the aforementioned MP assures us that such data exists.
People in Ukraine are afraid, but they are also poorly informed. The lack of truthful information is a wonderful breeding ground not just for a virus, but for all sorts of rumors and fears.
-- Irene Chalupa