KYIV - On March 25, the Ukrainian government extended emergency quarantine measures throughout Ukraine until April 24 but stopped short of proposing an actual state of emergency. The latter is a prerogative of the president requiring parliamentary approval. That idea had been proposed, principally, by Health Minister Yemets. It is opposed by President Zelenskyy and his Chief of Staff Yermak. Opposition was also voiced by Ukraine's largest business associations and the oligarchs at last week's meeting with the president where the sides agreed the creation of a domestic assistance fund.
It's often said that a week is a long time in politics. No surprise, then, that some things have changed quite noticeably during a fast-spreading pandemic since the initial introduction of quarantine measures in Kyiv seven days ago. But a follow-up look at transport and retail operations around the Lukianivka district (half a dozen bus stops west of the Maidan and a busy retail and traffic intersection) creates an overall positive impression.
Since the previous report, public transport is no longer accessible to the population at large. Only workers from key sectors displaying special passes are allowed on board. Drivers, police and municipal security services enforce strictly the new regime on every vehicle and even at many bus stops. The Metro remains closed, but there are no restrictions yet on the use of private transport or taxis within the city.
Although there are reports of price gouging - Mayor Klitschko this morning called for stricter enforcement of penalties against speculators - there were no obvious signs in the Lukianivka area stores visited today that prices had noticeably increased. Shelves were again full of all the basic food categories (this is not to say that there aren't temporary shortages elsewhere) while in the supermarket next to the closed Metro station a cheerful announcement every five minutes or so assured the very noticeably fewer shoppers that any empty shelves would soon be filled. That seemed to be the case. (Given that in many Ukrainian stores and supermarkets smaller trolleys and baskets are the norm, perhaps their dimensions help 'disincentivize' people from panic buying. Reports of shortages appear to come from the growing number of hypermarkets with their SUV-sized, Western-style trolleys. (Or maybe that's just a coincidence...) The Lukianivka outdoor market was finally closed a couple of days after the introduction of last week's quarantine measures.
One big change over the past few days has been the introduction of fairly strict distancing requirements in shops and supermarkets stipulating 10 sq m of space per customer. So far, this has led to occasional short lines but with no reports of widespread anti-social behavior.
While stores are supposed to insist customers wear face masks, this regulation -there is some confusion over whether this is in fact a recommendation - is not yet being completely enforced. Indeed, the most noticeable shortage from the vast majority of people's personal arsenal in the battle against the coronavirus is a face-mask. They are unavailable from the usual outlets and the shortage has generated what seems to be a thriving black market. Under the circumstances many people have simply resorted to sewing their own. For those lacking such basic skills, inverted eye shades from an airline amenity kit provides just as much - or little - protection as many of the other improvisations on display.
Overall, the general attitude towards the new modes of social behavior appears to be tolerant. Paradoxically, some breakdowns appear to have been caused by the very government responsible for introducing these changes. For example, a recent announcement that some pensioners would receive an extra 1,000 UAH (approximately $40) next month generated a rush to register, with the attendant crowding at post offices involving the social group most vulnerable to the coronavirus exposure.
Clearly, the number of infections in Ukraine has yet to reach Western European proportions. But there is growing concern that this is simply a question of 'when' not 'if'. One inevitable statistical hike will occur when Ukraine introduces more systematic testing.
Last Sunday, Ukraine received a first consignment of 250,000 Chinese testing kits, including for express testing, out of a total order of ten million. (According to some reports, this transaction was facilitated via a friendship between Kharkiv-based oligarch Oleksandr Yaroslavskiy and Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.)
But the real concern centers around the thousands of Ukrainians still returning home from the ever-growing number of global hot-spots -- now almost exclusively through Boryspil airport. (Ukraine's land borders have been sealed for some time now except for trains which today's government quarantine extension is supposed to halt commencing Friday.)
In contrast to the treatment of the original group of repatriates from China with their high-profile, compulsory two-week confinement in a facility in the Poltava oblast, later returnees have been allowed to melt away into the general population after simply providing contact details and a promise that they would self-quarantine. Fines are apparently in place for violations of what is essentially an unenforceable honesty code.
It was no surprise, then, that earlier this week Kyiv Mayor Volodymyr Klitschko appealed - belatedly - to the government for a more thorough approach (adopted, again belatedly, today) arguing that Kyiv will be left to pick up the human and financial cost of such a haphazard policy. However, with flights scheduled to bring more Ukrainians home over the weekend and beyond (Ukraine's single biggest daily hike in the infection index was traced to passengers from a European flight), even the introduction of the newer, more strict government policies will most likely be little more than a case of closing the door after the proverbial horse has bolted.