With Ukraine hit by the coronavirus, Dr. Oleksandr Molchanov’s one shift now extends to 42 hours – 24 of which are in Kakhovka Hospital, followed by another 18 hours in a tent visit set up to care for 120 COVID-19 patients.
While Eastern Europe vaccination rates are generally lagging behind, Ukraine has one of the lowest rates in the region. But due to an underfunded healthcare system, the situation has turned almost two years since the virus swept through Europe.
The country records records almost every day of injuries and deaths, the most recent of which was on Tuesday, when 838 deaths were reported.
“We are putting out the fire again. We are working at the front, but our strength and capabilities are limited,” said Molchanov, who works in the hospital in the southern Ukrainian city on the Dnieper River. “We are working to the limit.”
After his grueling bout, the 32-year-old doctor goes home to sleep and recovers for two days. The next challenge may be more difficult.
“The situation is getting worse. Hospital beds are running out, there are more and more serious patients, there is an acute shortage of doctors and medical personnel,” said Molchanov.
The tents adjacent to Kakhovka Hospital contain 120 beds, 87 of which are occupied, with more patients arriving every day. But Molchanov is one of only three doctors who take care of them.
President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration inherited a health care system undermined by the reforms launched by his predecessor that closed many small-town hospitals.
In those societies, people have to seek care in the big cities. If the problem is severe enough that the patient needs an ambulance, the wait can be up to eight hours.
“They are bringing patients in a very difficult condition, with a protracted form” of COVID-19, said Dr. Anatoly Galachenko, who also works at the tent hospital. “The main reason is the remoteness of the settlements and the impossibility of providing assistance in the initial stages of the disease.”
Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who leads the opposition Batkevshchina party, said she had traveled to many hospitals in Ukraine and found shortages everywhere.
“The deaths from COVID that are now being recorded in Ukraine, are not just deaths; it is the killing of people by this government that does not have oxygen, antiviral drugs, beds and medical staff that are usually paid,” she said in parliament.
“There are no longer free beds in the country – a new patient immediately comes to the bed of a person who has been discharged,” Tymoshenko added.
Four coronavirus vaccines are available in Ukraine – Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Sinovac – but only 21% of its 41 million population have been fully vaccinated. The Ministry of Health reports that 96% of severe COVID-19 patients have not been vaccinated.
Zelensky promised every fully vaccinated Ukrainian to pay 1,000 hryvnia ($38), about 5% of the average monthly wage, but the widespread reluctance remains.
Doctors say that vaccines are very effective in preventing deaths and hospitalizations, and when infection occurs in vaccinated people, it is usually mild.
Oleksandr Kaymanov, who refused to receive the vaccine, ended up infected and was taken to the tent hospital in Kakhovka from the town of Rozdolny, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.
Regarding supplemental oxygen, he cited various lies about the vaccine, saying that it is “useless” and that “people still get infected and get sick.”
Doctors are complaining that vaccines’ lies about the fact that they contain microchips or cause sterility and disease are driving the spread of the Corona virus.
“People believe in the most ridiculous rumors about microchips, sterility and the dangers of vaccinations, elderly people from high-risk groups greatly refuse vaccination, and this is very harmful and increases the burden on doctors,” said Molchanov. “People trust their neighbors more than doctors.”
The government has asked teachers, doctors, government employees and other groups of workers to be fully vaccinated by December 1. It has also begun requiring proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results for travel on planes, trains, and – bus distances.
The regulations have spawned a black market for fake vaccination documents, which sell for the equivalent of $100 to $300. A fake government digital smartphone app is said to be available, with fake certificates installed.
“COVID cannot be deceived with a false certificate, but many Ukrainians know about it only in intensive care,” said Molchanov.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs said 1,200 kits were sent across Ukraine to check the authenticity of medical documents. The police had already identified several secret printers who were making forged certificates.
Doctors say forged certificates make their work more difficult.
“We work to the limit, but we are tired of fighting not only with disease, but also with stupidity,” said Molchanov.