Wearing full protective gear including a white suit and plastic visor, Ukrainian doctor Marta Saiko checked on an elderly patient hooked up to a ventilator.
The country has seen a surge of new COVID-19 cases following the lifting of nationwide lockdown measures.
“We’re overloaded. Over the last 24 hours we’ve admitted 18 patients with suspected coronavirus,” said Saiko, head of primary care at Lviv Emergency Hospital.
“It’s like in a war, it’s very hard. All our staff are exhausted,” she said.
Saiko’s hospital, in one of the worst affected regions of Ukraine, is still treating ordinary emergency patients but for the first time since the pandemic began is also admitting suspected virus cases.
The hospital has created 50 beds for such patients and all were full within three days, she said. “Their medical state is moderately serious or bordering on serious. One patient has died.”
Nataliya Matolinets, head of the intensive care unit, said the hospital had begun treating coronavirus patients because the city needs more beds.
“Both the psychological and physical burden has grown significantly for the doctors and all the staff,” she said.
During the first wave of contagion earlier this year, the hospital admitted some patients who subsequently tested positive and infected medics, she said.
Now, unlike in the first weeks of the outbreak, doctors have enough protective equipment, she said, remaining upbeat.
“We’re stress-resistant and understand how much hope is pinned on us.”
The facade of the hospital has a mural showing a doctor in white protective gear and the word “Dyakuyu”, meaning thank you in Ukrainian.
– ‘People forgot lockdown’ –
In June, the World Health Organization listed Ukraine among two dozen European countries that have seen resurgences of the virus.
At the highest point on June 26, Ukraine had a daily increase of 1,109 cases as authorities warned they might have to re-impose lockdown measures.
The country has confirmed more than 49,000 cases and over 1,200 deaths.
Over the past two weeks the western Lviv region has reported more new infections than any other.
Nataliya Timko, a top epidemiologist at the Lviv regional health care department, told AFP that the region had expected to have more cases in the first wave but avoided this thanks to strict lockdown rules.
But now “some people have forgotten about the lockdown”, she lamented, saying the virus is spreading because some are ditching face masks and other protective measures.
Andriy Sadovyi, mayor of Lviv, a picturesque city of one million that is a major tourism destination, told AFP that the region had carried out more tests than any other, detecting more cases.
He urged residents to adhere to social distancing rules, stressing these were in place to prevent infections.
“You can’t have a coffee in a cafe in Lviv until they’ve taken your temperature and all the waiters wear masks,” Sadovyi said of the city famed for its cafe culture.
Ukraine eased its lockdown measures in late May and early June with the resumption of public transport and the reopening of parks, outdoor cafes and beauty salons.
– ‘Hard to see patients die’ –
The mayor praised the work of local medics.
“It is reassuring that the medical system is coping with the number of patients, and we have up to 40 percent (of virus beds) occupied,” Sadovyi said.
If the surge in cases continues, all the city’s hospitals will have to start treating coronavirus patients, he added, however.
He urged the government to fulfil its promise to pay all the doctors who treat COVID-19 patients a bonus of three times their monthly salary.
“It’s important to give them decent pay,” Sadovyi said.
He acknowledged that it is “psychologically difficult for the doctors to reorganise how they work” as hospitals have to hastily adapt their systems to treat virus patients.
The new caseload causes a lot of physical and emotional stress, agreed Timko.
“It is hard to work in protective suits; it’s hard to watch patients die.”
The International Monetary Fund has approved a $5 billion aid package for Ukraine aimed at helping the country “to cope with COVID-19 pandemic challenges,” with an immediate release of $2.1 billion, the institution announced in a statement on Tuesday.
The new 18-month program is geared towards “providing balance of payments and budget support, while safeguarding achievements to date and advancing a small set of key structural reforms, to ensure that Ukraine is well-poised to return to growth when the crisis ends,” the Fund said in a statement published on its website.
The program was agreed in principle on May 21 but has now received the green light from the body’s board of directors.
The Washington-based institution said Ukraine’s track record in stabilizing the economy over the last five years has been “strong.”
“However, more reforms efforts are needed to ensure robust and inclusive growth,” it added in the statement.
The COVID-19 outbreak has “significantly worsened” the country’s outlook, it said, forcing authorities to focus primarily on virus containment measures.
“Uncertainty is large, and the economy is projected to contract sharply in 2020 as strict containment measures — in Ukraine and globally — led to sizable falls in domestic and external demand,” the IMF warned.
The 2020 budget is “expected to be hit hard, with a sharp decline in revenues and large emergency spending needs to address the crisis,” it continued.
The agreement was reached under what the Fund calls a Stand-By Arrangement (SBA), the technical term for one of the financing instruments most commonly used by the Fund, usually in exchange for a reform program.
It succeeds the previous 14-month $3.9 billion program approved in December 2018 to maintain stability during the election year, the Fund said.
At the end of March, the Ukrainian parliament lifted a long-standing ban on the sale of farmland, a crucial and controversial piece of legislation needed to unlock support from the IMF.
In May, Kiev also adopted a law targeting owners of banks that go bankrupt, preventing them from regaining their assets.
Under the previous plan, Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, received a single payment of $1.4 billion due to insufficient reforms and corruption.
Separately Tuesday the IMF approved $363.6 million in emergency aid for Papua New Guinea, for use in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
The support “provides resources to the authorities to maintain macroeconomic stability with the aim of assisting the private sector adversely affected by COVID-19,” the IMF said.
The Fund said it welcomed measures the country had taken to support businesses, workers and households.
However, due to export losses and the cost of measures put in place to mitigate spread of the virus, Papua New Guinea is expected to be in recession this year.
Alyona Alyona is turning the macho rules of rap on their head.
For a start, the former kindergarten teacher tries never to swear in her songs.
She proudly raps in the Ukrainian she grew up speaking in her rustic home village, rather than in English or Russian.
And she has become something of a plus-size icon for letting it all hang out in a silver swimming costume in the video for her first big hit, “Ribki” (“Fish”).
Flanked by two scantily-clad, pencil-thin women of the type that usually people rap videos, the song is a clear metaphor for young women who feel out of place.
The rapper, whose real name is Alyona Savranenko, has put body positivity, bullying and female empowerment in songs that defy the stereotype of what hip-hop should be.
The hugely popular 28-year-old has become a phenomenon in Europe, tearing it up at the Eurosonic showcase in the Groningen in the Netherlands last month after being picked out as a rising star by the New York Times.
– ‘Such a story’ –
“She’s really extraordinary, and hugely charming,” said Jean-Louis Brossard, who booked the charismatic performer for his Trans festival in the French city of Rennes last year.
“She brings people together with her smile and her enthusiasm — and she has such a story,” he told AFP.
“She is super-good, technically great, sassy, what can I say?” added music journalist Eloise Bouton, who founded the Madame Rap website.
Her videos have scored millions of hits despite their down-to-earth settings like her home village in central Ukraine, where horses and carts were a common sight in her childhood.
One clip, which starts with her parents at the kitchen table of their Soviet-era apartment, has had nearly four million views.
Ukraine’s biggest rapper began writing poetry when she was six, but discovered hip-hop at 12.
At first, she copied or translated American rap before finding her own voice and addressing young women’s place in society.
“I wasn’t a gangster, I was a kindergarten teacher,” she said.
But Alyona’s life changed when the video for “Fish”, which featured her frolicking on a jet ski, went viral.
“At the beginning, I was scared” by all the attention, she told AFP.
“The video got so many views that journalists started to come to see me” in the tiny village nursery school near Kiev where she taught.
– Facing down sexism –
Alyona realised if she was going to get serious about her musical career, she would have to give up her job.
“‘Fish’ is about women who have piercings, tattoos or strange coloured hair, or a body that is not seen as normal,” the singer said.
“We, these women, are like fish in tank. And behind the glass, we don’t hear the nasty words directed at us,” she added.
Another track “Pushka”, which roughly translates as “the bomb”, also challenges how women are seen. In it, Alyona calls herself a “pishka”, a term of abuse for someone who is overweight.
Other lyrics are more poignant: “They may have a fresh view on everything, but they never invite us home…”
Hip-hop is hardly known as a hotbed of feminist thinking, and Alyona has had to put up with some zingers.
“They have told me that women were made to cook, to look after children, to do their nails, to do their makeup,” she recalled.
– Body positive –
“But I try to show that women have their place in rap battles,” the off-the-cuff bragging contests that characterise the genre.
And Alyona has found her niche, far from the cliches of “drugs and gangs — because that is not my life. I go to see my parents or go on holiday.
“I try to inspire people. I am not just there to say to women that they can be rappers, but to tell them to believe in themselves,” she said.
Even though Alyona grew up idolising Eminem — “He represents everything you should do and not do at the same time,” she quipped — she prefers not to rap in English or in Russian, which might also bring her a bigger audience.
“I taught in Ukrainian and I want to say things in Ukrainian,” she insisted.
But she denied that it had anything to do with nationalism. “I don’t like politics. My generation is tired by politics… we want to create new things. There are so many great performers, painters, so many talented people out there.”
Kiev on Monday accused Tehran of knowing from the start that an Iranian missile had downed a Ukrainian airliner last month after leaked recordings emerged from Iranian air traffic control.
The recordings, aired on Ukraine’s 1+1 TV channel on Sunday, feature a conversation between an air traffic controller and the pilot of another plane at the time the Ukrainian airliner was hit on January 8, killing all 176 people on board.
The pilot can be heard describing “the light of a missile” on its route and then an explosion.
Iran initially denied Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 had been brought down by one of its missiles.
It later admitted that two missiles were fired at the plane by air defences on high alert, hours after Iranian armed forces fired ballistic missiles at US troops stationed in Iraq.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said after the release of the recording that it “proves that the Iranian side knew from the start that our plane was hit by a missile.
“Everything is audible there,” Zelensky told 1+1. “Everything is recorded.”
The audio clip features the pilot of an Aseman Airlines flight from Iran’s southern city of Shiraz to Tehran communicating with air traffic control in the Iranian capital.
“There is a series of lights on our route, like a missile. Is there something?” the pilot is heard asking.
“What is the light like?” the controller asks.
“It’s the light of a missile,” the pilot replies.
The control tower then tries to contact the Ukrainian airliner, but unsuccessfully.
After a few minutes, the pilot says: “There was an explosion. We saw a very bright light here.”
It was unclear how the channel obtained the recording, though officials denied it had come from the Ukrainian authorities.
“This is a journalistic investigation. You need to ask them where they got this recording,” Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s Security and Defence Council, told AFP.
In his first nine months as Ukrainian president, former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky has found himself at the center of major international crises, including the US impeachment investigation and Iran’s downing of a passenger jet.
Yet so far Zelensky has sailed through relatively unscathed, avoiding any major gaffes, political analysts said.
The 41-year-old played a president in a popular TV sitcom before sweeping to power in elections last April on promises to “smash the old corrupt system” and end the separatist war in the east.
But many had voiced concerns about how someone without political experience could lead a country fighting a war with Russia-backed separatists while also dealing with widespread poverty and corruption.
“Fears of his inexperience turned out to be exaggerated,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, a foreign policy analyst at the Razumkov Center in Kiev.
Polls show most Ukrainians are satisfied with Zelensky’s performance.
His approval rating reached 62 percent in December after his first face-to-face meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
When it comes to international relations, the political novice has been constantly in the spotlight.
Just a few months into his first term, Zelensky found himself plunged into the impeachment scandal that threatens to take down US President Donald Trump.
Trump is accused of pressuring Zelensky to investigate political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine, making this a quid pro quo for military aid and a White House meeting. An impeachment trial is currently underway in the US Senate.
The Ukrainian leader has sought to distance himself from the scandal, stressing it is an internal affair for the United States.
For Kiev it is vital to maintain support from both major US political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats since Washington has been Kiev’s key ally in its long-running fight with Moscow.
December’s summit with Putin in Paris was the next major test for Zelensky.
Many Ukrainians feared Russia’s strongman would overwhelm the former showman, but he managed to restart peace talks that had been frozen for three years and agree on a prisoner exchange.
“Zelensky is a fast learner,” said David Stulik, senior analyst in the European Values Centre for Security Policy and former European Union diplomat in Kiev.
“With each international meeting he has acted more and more confidently,” Stulik said while adding Zelensky should have been “more insistent and even assertive” at the negotiations with Russia and the West.
Slow to blame Iran
Other analysts have also pointed to some flaws in Zelensky’s tenure as president so far.
When a Ukrainian airliner crashed in Iran in early January, killing all 176 people on board, Kiev’s reaction was rather muted.
As Ottawa and London openly stated that Iranian forces had accidentally shot the plane down with a missile, Ukraine was slow to pin the blame on Tehran, which ultimately admitted guilt.
Zelensky has faced criticism for what some see as a passive stance compared to other leaders.
“During the crisis, the political leader of Ukraine was (Canadian Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau,” analyst Mykola Davydiuk said ironically.
Yet Kiev argued that its circumspect approach meant Iran granted it access to the wreckage and the crash site to shed light on the tragedy.
Serious rifts emerged in Zelensky’s team last week with Prime Minister Oleksiy Goncharuk offering to resign after a leaked recording emerged where he questioned the president’s grasp of economics.
Zelensky seemingly smoothed over the situation, giving his PM a “second chance” and demanding an investigation into the leak.
Lacking ‘clear vision’
Such successful management of ad hoc crises does not, however, give much indication of whether Zelensky will be able to transform the country in the way he has promised.
Ukrainians want him to enact crucial reforms to root out corruption, reform the justice system and revive the economy of one of the poorest countries in Europe.
“It’s too bad he doesn’t use his great popularity to do something really big,” said Davydiuk.
A key reform promoted by Zelensky is allowing the sale of farmland from 2020 — a move that is hotly anticipated by investors but feared by many farmers.
For months the process of the bill’s adoption has dragged on with more and more amendments submitted and growing protests.
“We are in a zone of great risks,” said Oleksandr Sushko, executive director of the International Renaissance Foundation, which promotes the development of civil society.
He cited the fact that the president’s team consists mainly of his former showbusiness colleagues who lack experience in solving political problems.
Zelensky has got bogged down in constant crises and the presidential routine wrote Ukrainian news site Ukrainska Pravda.
In its view, he has “failed to formulate a clear vision of the country he wants to build”.
Donald Trump demanded the dismissal of Marie Yovanovitch, the ambassador to Ukraine and a key figure in the president’s impeachment trial, according to a video recording released to US media on Saturday.
The footage was reportedly taken during an April 2018 donor dinner at a hotel and released to news outlets by an attorney for Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Parnas and his business partner Igor Fruman are key players in Trump’s alleged campaign to pressure the government of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, a potential election opponent for the president.
The issue is central to Trump’s ongoing impeachment trial in the US Senate.
His order to fire the ambassador came after Parnas told him that Yovanovich was an impediment, and claiming that she had privately disparaged the President.
“Get rid of her!” Trump says on the tape, reportedly addressing a White House aide at the dining table.
“Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.”
Images taken at an awkward angle appear at the start of the one hour, 23-minute-long video. The rest of the recording shows a tan background, as if the camera were covered, but Trump’s distinctive voice is clear.
In TV interview with MSNBC News last week, Parnas said Trump “knew exactly what was going on” with his and Fruman’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian authorities to investigate Biden.
His appearance came after Democrats released documents that showed Giuliani worked with Parnas to pressure Kiev to investigate Biden.
Both Parnas and Fruman were charged with violating US campaign finance laws in October.
The documents also showed the pair, working with Ukrainian officials, trying to force out Yovanovitch, a respected career diplomat who Trump eventually removed in May 2019.
Saturday’s recording corroborates much of what Parnas said in his TV interview, including that he knew Trump — something the president has denied.
In October Yovanovitch testified to Congress that she was recalled due to “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”
Joseph Bondy, an attorney for Parnas, said that he submitted the evidence to investigators in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.
He also told CNN that Parnas has more recordings and photographs that may be released to the public.
The release of the tape increases pressure on US senators to subpoena witnesses for the impeachment trial, a move several polls show has strong support among the US public.
White House lawyers began Trump’s defense in the impeachment trial on Saturday.
They have argued that the president did nothing wrong in his dealings with Ukraine and that US voters — not Congress — should decide his fate.
Trump’s lawyers will resume his defense on Monday.