On March 18, Ukraine, like many European countries, went into lock-down mode until April 3 in an attempt to contain the corona virus pandemic. Borders were closed and international flights suspended. All non-essential transport between cities was also prohibited. Kyiv introduced its own measures. These included the closing of all bars, restaurants, retail outlets, markets and malls. Only supermarkets, food stores, pharmacies and filling stations were allowed to remain open. In addition, the Metro was closed and severe restrictions were introduced for surface public transportation: No more than ten passengers per bus, with face masks mandatory.
But how did things work in practice? A look at transport and retail outlets around the Lukianivka district (half a dozen bus stops west of the Maidan and a busy retail and traffic intersection) on the first evening rush-hour after the introduction of the emergency measures suggested that despite the best intentions of the authorities – including warnings about severe punishments for violations – the population took a fairly liberal interpretation of what was permitted. Moreover, the police and other public safety personnel the authorities said would be deployed in greater numbers to enforce compliance were conspicuous only by their absence.
There is no prohibition against going to work. Because face masks had vanished some time ago from shops throughout the capital, there were early morning reports that people who chose or had to go to work were congregating at bus stops and then jostling to board the often packed public transport, thus ignoring the widely and regularly publicized warnings to avoid crowding. Some drivers attempted to more or less abide by their new instructions. By evening, although the volume of passengers was clearly smaller than usual for a rush hour, the ten passenger rule seemed largely ignored and the majority of passengers – like most pedestrians – appeared to have dispensed with face masks (if that’d had any to start with). Taxis were not subjected to any restrictions. Consequently, perhaps one way to gauge the overall transport situation was that smart phone taxi apps displayed very normal tariffs throughout the day.
Stores and Markets
While social media had displayed photos of some city markets with padlocked gates, the Lukianivka market was open and working as on any weekday. Smaller shops were well stocked with bags of regular Ukrainian staples such as buck wheat, rice and other grains as well as pasta products. Toilet paper was also widely available. Indeed, at a large supermarket next door to the closed Metro station, one brand of this now iconic western symbol of the pandemic was being sold at a discount price. Only facial tissues seemed to be in short supply. Essentially, although shelf stocking seems to be taking place more regularly in recent days, looking at what and how much people were taking to the checkouts betrayed no obvious signs of panic buying. The very few reports of unusual consumer behavior were limited to one or two hypermarkets on the outskirts of Kyiv. Moreover, when monitoring such reports it’s important to keep in mind the almost incestuous relationship between news and politics in Ukraine.
Clearly, as elsewhere, no-one knows how far the situation in Ukraine might yet deteriorate. There are genuine concerns over the level of medical preparedness and the ability of a notoriously ineffective medical system to cope should Ukraine’s currently very low levels of infection explode. But in the short term, given the severity of the measures that had been announced just a couple of days prior to implementation, the general reaction in one small but busy part of Kyiv seemed surprisingly normal. It would indeed be welcome – not to mention remarkable – if this atmosphere of collective calm (the more poetic might label it resignation) were to persist through what global trends promise will surely be more challenging times.