Covid red tape is creating a nightmare for those fleeing Ukraine’s borders

Isobel Cockerell



During the first two weeks of February, as Russian troops massed at Ukraine’s borders, Ukraine was recording sky-high virus cases. Hospitals were already stretched to breaking point as they grappled with a virus surge and doctors reported pulling 42-hour shifts this winter. Beds, doctors and medical workers were all in short supply, with patients relegated to tent hospitals ill-equipped with essentials like oxygen and drugs. More than 65% of Ukrainians are unvaccinated – one of the worst rates in the region. It will be some time before we know precisely how the pandemic will play into this invasion, or how overstretched hospitals will deal with mass casualties, when Covid patients are already occupying a significant chunk of available beds. We only have to look at history to see how infectious diseases and wars make for deadly comrades

We’re already seeing devastating reports of Ukrainians making the desperate decision to leave their elderly, Covid-positive relatives in Kyiv while they flee the capital with their children, while others have been crowding into subway stations as Russian soldiers enter the capital. It’s a devastating truth that the destructive conditions of war make epidemics worse. 

Meanwhile, those trying to flee the region are being met with Kafkaesque complications thanks to Covid. While Poland has opened its borders to Ukrainian refugees without the need for a passport or a Covid test, getting further afield is a different story. I spoke to Paul Manning, a former police officer in Canada, who’s desperately trying to get his wife and daughter to Toronto. They were in the Polish border town of Przemysl, where they say explosions can be heard from across the border, visiting Manning’s mother-in-law who was due to have heart surgery. Now stuck in the chaos of the border, which has been receiving thousands of fleeing Ukrainians, they are desperate to get back to Canada. They have a flight booked for today from Warsaw to Toronto — but have been told by the Canadian authorities that they can’t board without a Covid test, which in the current chaos, they say they can’t access for less than $600. Manning said the Canadian emergency response team was “completely devoid of emotion.” 

“If I don’t get her on that flight, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he told me, describing how his wife was “crying her eyes out.”


It’s taken no time at all for far-right, pro-Putin conspiracy theorists to prey on the crisis and use it to forward their warped version of events. Four days ago, Far-right personality Jeremy Herrell told his listeners that “this whole Russia Ukraine thing is just a hoax.” Telegram channels dedicated to anti-vaccine propaganda and QAnon are already filling up with bizarre takes on how the invasion is part of the same conspiracy as the pandemic. Meanwhile, #USBiolabs has been trending alongside propaganda claims that the focus of Putin’s invasion is actually  targeting biolabs where deadly pathogens – such as the coronavirus – are supposedly being produced. Snopes has already had to fact-check this claim as false, but not before it was retweeted thousands of times on Twitter.

Russian scientists and journalists have written an open letter to Vladimir Putin, condemning the invasion. “Having unleashed the war, Russia doomed itself to international isolation, to the position of a pariah country,” they wrote. “This means that we, scientists, will no longer be able to do our job normally: after all, conducting scientific research is unthinkable without full cooperation with colleagues from other countries.” Over a thousand academics and journalists have already signed the petition, with more names being added every few seconds. 

There’s a tidal wave of information about the invasion – and unverified hoax videos are populating our feeds every few minutes. If you’re unsure who to follow for reliable, on-the-ground updates, consider supporting our reporting partners the Kyiv Independent,Zaborona Media, and Hromadske Ukraine. If you’d like to donate to the Kyiv Independent, they’ve started a fundraiser page here.