In Ukraine, much panic and politicking over H1N1 virus

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 21, 2009

KIEV, UKRAINE -- One night at the height of the panic over what people here call the California flu, as 24-hour news stations tracked a rising death toll and politicians speculated about a mystery lung plague, Ukraine's prime minister rushed to the airport to greet a shipment of Tamiflu as if it were a foreign dignitary. Not to be outdone, the president, a bitter political foe, dispatched a top aide to meet the plane, too.

In neighboring Belarus, the government took an opposite tack, accusing drug companies of fanning hysteria over swine flu to boost profit. In Poland, the health minister is under fire for refusing to stock up on a vaccine, while doctors in Hungary are resisting orders to administer the shot. In Turkmenistan, the authorities have been accused of covering up an epidemic, with infectious-disease wards reportedly full and people being turned away.

As the pandemic H1N1 influenza surges with the onset of winter, the nations of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union appear particularly vulnerable to the deadly virus. Burdened with weak health-care systems, relatively inexperienced news media outlets and shaky governments that have little public trust, the region also seems ripe for panic and political strife over the flu.

The potential for trouble is already on display in Ukraine, where 1.5 million of its 46 million people have had diagnoses of flu and respiratory illnesses since the start of the outbreak and 356 have died, according to the government. The World Health Organization (WHO) suspects that most of the cases are swine flu, making Ukraine among the hardest-hit countries in Europe, including Russia, Bulgaria, Moldova and Poland.

More telling than the numbers, however, has been the widespread fear the virus has caused in Ukraine, and the outsize impact it has had on the nation's political landscape.

In the weeks since Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko announced measures against the spread of the flu -- shutting the nation's schools and banning public gatherings -- anxious residents have overwhelmed hospitals and pharmacies, buying up supplies of medicine, gauze masks and home remedies such as lemons and garlic. Rumors have proliferated that people are dying of a new, more lethal strain of the virus.

Semyon Gluzman, a psychiatrist and Soviet-era dissident in Kiev, said the fear was a rational response in a nation with a dysfunctional health-care system and a corrupt, ineffective government. Hopes soared in Ukraine after the mass pro-democracy demonstrations known as the Orange Revolution, he said, but the five years of political infighting since have undermined the public's faith in the nation's leaders and political institutions.

"What we're seeing is a normal, psychological reaction to the complete incompetence of the state authorities," he said. "People are scared, and they don't know who to trust anymore."

Ukraine's news media -- which gained new freedoms after the Orange Revolution -- have provided round-the-clock, often sensational coverage of the outbreak. The nation's leading politicians, meanwhile, are jockeying for advantage ahead of the January presidential election, accusing one another of exploiting the crisis by doing too much or endangering lives by doing too little.

President Viktor Yushchenko, running far behind in his reelection bid, accused the prime minister of failing to prepare for the outbreak, saying that she left the national flu center staffed with only one employee, put doctors in danger and allowed the H1N1 virus to mutate into a "more aggressive" strain. Aides floated the idea of postponing the election because of the outbreak.

Tymoshenko, who was a Yushchenko ally in the Orange Revolution, fought back, criticizing him this week for blocking $125 million in emergency spending to fight the flu and saying he would be "responsible for every person who is ill today or dies."

Tymoshenko, shown by the media touring hospitals, issuing instructions and delivering daily updates on the outbreak, has enjoyed a dramatic boost in the presidential race. One poll conducted last week put her within three percentage points of Viktor Yanukovych, the opposition leader and front-runner, after lagging far behind for months.

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