Ukraine’s decades-long vaccine hesitancy bites as refugees flee

Isobel Cockerell

 

Two million people have now fled Ukraine, and Europe — with the exception of the UK — has opened its borders. At Berlin Hauptbahnhof, packed trains arriving from Poland have been met by crowds of Berliners, holding up signs with offers of a place to sleep. But this show of goodwill has come up against some Covid-shaped barriers.

Much of Europe still has strict Covid regulations in place — meaning those who aren’t vaccinated are barred from using public transport or entering most businesses, cafes, hotels and restaurants unless they have a green pass showing they’ve tested negative. In Stuttgart, Germany, dozens of refugees were forced to sleep overnight in the train station’s waiting room after they were barred from staying in hotels because they lacked “the relevant evidence” to prove their Covid credentials.

“They are already unwell, they’re fleeing a war, they’ve come to Germany, and now on top of everything they have to face these difficulties, and are told that first, they need to be vaccinated,” said Maria Azzarone, co-founder of Wolja, an NGO which is helping refugees stranded in Stuttgart. She described how some were able to find some hotels with on-the-spot testing, but others were forced to spend the night huddled on benches in the train station.

In Italy, unvaccinated Ukrainians face similar problems. Prime Minister Mario Draghi hasn’t waived Green Pass requirements for incoming refugees — and they need to either be fully vaccinated or pay for a test every 48 hours to access public transport, hotels, and restaurants.

Canada has invited an unlimited number of Ukrainians to apply to come to the country for two years — but they won’t be exempt from Covid requirements. Our reporter Alexandra Tyan spoke to Debra Lefebvre, an Ontario nurse, who described how Canada is experiencing an acute nursing shortage. “The influx of unvaccinated people may add to the burden of healthcare. How will we cope?” she said. Currently, unvaccinated people arriving in Canada will have to undergo two weeks’ quarantine, with no exceptions for refugees. 

Let’s get some context here: why are international vaccination requirements creating these situations for Ukrainian refugees?

Ukraine has one of the lowest Covid vaccination rates in Europe at about 35%. Before the invasion, vaccine hesitancy was at crisis point. Last August, reporter Lily Hyde covered the anti-vaccine crisis for Coda from eastern Ukraine. Russia had scored a propaganda goal by providing Sputnik V to separatist territories.

Meanwhile, Kremlin-backed conspiracies and anti-vaccine disinformation have proliferated online, spreading fake news about the western jabs, in line with broader attempts to divide Ukrainian society. These campaigns are not new: a report by the Wilson Center described how vaccine hesitancy goes back decades. A year before the pandemic, a Wellcome trust study found just 29% of Ukrainians thought vaccines were safe.

IN OTHER INFODEMIC NEWS 

The Omicron variant has hit Hong Kong hard. With poor vaccination rates among the elderly, the city has been reporting tens of thousands of cases each day along with sky-high death rates. Hong Kongers who test positive, along with their contacts, have been told they must go into spartan isolation centers, or go to jail. Authorities sent a former Hong Kong union founder back to jail after she wrote a series of social media posts criticizing the government’s handling of the Covid crisis. Winnie Yu, a nurse, had been out on bail awaiting a national security law trial for “subversion” during a democratic primary in 2020. But she was told her social media activity violated her bail conditions. As she left the court, Yu called out to her supporters in the public gallery: “take care of my cat for me!”

Lithuania has canceled a donation of almost half a million Covid vaccines to Bangladesh after the country abstained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during the UN General assembly vote. About half of Bangladesh’s 165-million-strong population is fully vaccinated, and the move has been condemned as dangerous and counterproductive. “I do not celebrate the cancellation of life saving vaccines to people,” tweeted Alexandra Phelan, an assistant professor at the Center for Global Health Science & Security at Georgetown University.

In the U.S., a man has been sentenced to three years in prison after he used Covid relief money to buy an exceptionally rare $57,000 Pokémon card. Vinath Oudomsine, 31, claimed an $85,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loan for his small business — before promptly blowing most of it on a trading card showing the prized character Charizard. “Like moths to the flame, fraudsters like Oudomsine took advantage of these programs to line their own pockets — and with our law enforcement partners, we are holding him and others accountable for their greed,” said District Attorney David H. Estes. The card is now government property.

WHAT WE’RE READING

Ecuador’s largest city was hit with one of the world’s most lethal Covid outbreaks. For the New Yorker, Daniel Alarcón reports on the devastating aftermath of the Guayaquil epidemic. “In interview after interview, people broke down, had to gather themselves, and it was often the most innocuous questions that set them off, or sometimes no question at all.”

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