Living in Ukraine During the COVID-19 Pandemic

kiev ukraine subway

On Thursday afternoon I had a phone call with a colleague based in New York City. This call, like many I’ve had over the last week, started with small talk about COVID-19 (the coronavirus).

It’s already become a common line of questions: What’s the situation like where you’re at? When do you think authorities will close schools/airports/borders/public spaces in your location? What do you think this will all look like in one week? Two weeks? A month? Isn’t it incredible the way the travel and tourism/aviation/cruise/medical/education/sports/media industry is taking the hit/handling this?

I am well aware of the U.S. response (or lack of response) to the coronavirus. As an American citizen living abroad, I read the news every morning over coffee. And, for better or worse, the United States tends to dominate media coverage anyway. If it’s not one unbelievable story coming out of the country, it’s something else.

So, what is my impression of the coronavirus as an American living in Ukraine

It seems that’s a topic that hasn’t received much coverage at all in the news (shocker). For all my family and friends who are asking — and for all of those wondering — here is my perspective on the situation. Please note: These are my personal opinions and observations.

What’s the situation in Ukraine?

As of late Thursday night, Ukraine had three confirmed cases of coronavirus. None of these cases are in Kyiv.

Personally, I think there are more cases in the country, but the country doesn’t have adequate testing kits. Without testing, there is no confirmation. I don’t think the lack of testing is out of denial though; it’s truly a lack of supplies for Ukraine. The Health Ministry purchased nearly 20,000 kits earlier this week, which are expected to arrive this weekend. I think mass testing will begin next week, and we’ll see the number of cases increase at that time.

How is Ukraine responding to the coronavirus?

I have been incredibly impressed with the country’s proactive response to this crisis. It would be so easy to be reactive and deny the reality of this global pandemic. Without confirmation of more cases, it could easily spiral out of control — and fast!

Instead, active measures are in place to keep the virus contained.

We arrived home from our trip to Isreal two weeks ago tomorrow (Saturday). Even then, when we got off the plane, every single person had their temperature taken.

As of Wednesday of this week, Ukraine has closed schools and canceled all public events through the end of March. The country has restricted the number of border crossing points to 49 out of 219. There are far fewer flights coming and going through the airports. And, like I mentioned, thousands of testing kits are on their way.

Okay, but what is it really like in Kyiv right now?

Besides the school closures, it really is life as normal.

A couple weeks ago, folks working in the subway stations were wearing face masks, but they aren’t wearing them anymore. Now, the subway is just as busy as it’s always been. People are out at restaurants and stores.

Oh! And stores have fully stocked aisles of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, soap, water, and food. No one is hoarding anything. (I truly don’t understand what is going on with all the hoarding in some countries.) But then again, people don’t tend to not bulk buy anyway because they use public transportation and there’s not lots of extra space to store stuff.

There are signs in the metro stations reminding people to cover their coughs. Near the elevator in our grocery store, there’s a hand sanitizer dispenser now.

But for the most part, things are exactly as they’ve always been. The park is busy. Kids are playing on the playground. People are still taking public transportation and shopping at the market. It’s just another day in Kyiv.

What is your personal situation like?

Again, Cory’s school has been proactive in its efforts. Any staff or students who traveled to South Korea, Iran, or Italy over the February holiday have been in self-initiated quarantine for the past two weeks. Immediate school-related travel is canceled for the time being. I don’t know all of the details about his school’s decisions, but suffice to say the goal is to manage the situation so it doesn’t become a full-blown crisis.

For me, personally, there have been few disruptions to my daily routine. So goes the life of a self-employed person working from a home office! The yoga classes I teach are canceled for as long as the school is closed. We don’t have any April travel plans, so no worries there. We do have a pretty epic trip planned for the summer (well, it’s planned and partially booked), and we’re in a wait-and-see place with that right now.

I received an article assignment and I wanted to travel back to the U.S. to report the piece later this spring, but I’m not sure if that will happen now. The travel and tourism industry is taking a nosedive, so I’m having to rethink some of the stories I’ve been trying to pitch and place. I’m beginning to think this might be a good time to step back from the hustle and focus on some of my solitary projects that don’t rely heavily on other people.

What are you concerned about?

I am very happy Ukraine is being proactive about the coronavirus. Quite frankly, I think it has to be. If we have a major outbreak here, I’m not sure if there are enough support systems and medical facilities to handle a true catastrophe.

That said, I’m concerned about Ukrainians’ long-term response to managing this virus. There is a deep history of home remedies and suspicion of medical advice and practices here. If I had to guess why this is — and it’s purely a guess — I think it has a lot to do with lack of information and misinformation fed to the general population during Soviet rule. It’s hard to change those ingrained fears and suspicions. As this relates to coronavirus, I worry people might not get tested when they should be and might not abide by quarantine recommendations as suggested by health practitioners.

I also worry about the long-term consequences in Ukraine. There is an anti-vaccination culture here. It is exceptionally difficult to get a vaccination in the country, and locals do not actively seek them out for themselves or their children. Assuming the coronavirus is here to stay in some capacity for the foreseeable future, I worry we could have outbreaks in Ukraine in the years to come because people refuse to vaccinate against it.

And, I am concerned that a lot of people in Ukraine don’t wash their hands regularly. It’s disgusted me since we first moved to the country and continues to gross me out. Hopefully this pandemic will help change that habit.

On a larger scale, I worry about what’s going to happen in the United States, where the vast majority of my family and friends live. I’m concerned the government will be so grossly reactive and unresponsive that far more people will fall ill and die than is necessary. I worry they won’t have access to the care they need, and that there is no social net to help them weather this storm.

I feel grateful every single day that I have good health insurance and don’t live on U.S. soil, but so many people that I know don’t have (adequate) health insurance and do live in the country. My concerns about the coronavirus are, by and large, for and about other people, not myself or the immediate situation in Ukraine.

One Response to “Living in Ukraine During the COVID-19 Pandemic”

  1. Jill

    Thanks so much for the complete update! We’re good here at home…and discovered 10 boxes of cereal when we surveyed the pantry! We won’t starve!


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