COVID-19 pandemic: what is going on in the occupied part of Donbas and in Crimea?

Russian occupation authorities kept reassuring for long that there is no coronavirus in the occupied peninsula. As of March 26 seven cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in occupied Crimea. Reports also say that there are several hundred patients with suspected coronavirus infection in Crimean hospitals.  

Meanwhile in the occupied territory in Donbas – in the so-called “DPR” and “LPR”, there is no “official” information available on coronavirus statistics. Occupation administrations insist that coronavirus has not spread in the so-called “republics”. 

Ukrainian media are mostly not able to check the information on coronavirus outbreak in the occupied territories. Instead, they are trying to access the information by interviewing people and consulting experts and human rights organizations. UCMC takes a look at what the actual coronavirus situation is in the uncontrolled areas.

Ukraine’s occupied territories in Donetsk and Luhansk regions as well as Crimea have been now isolated for almost two weeks. On March 16 Ukraine restricted traffic through the crossing points at the contact line in Donbas. Subsequently, on March 22 it shut down the crossing points. On March 21 the occupation authorities in the so-called “LPR” and “DPR” closed their side of the crossing points. On March 18 Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) sealed Crimea’s administrative border with mainland Ukraine until May.

On March 16 Russia imposed ban on entry for foreign nationals. The order also applied to the passenger traffic coming from the part of Ukraine it occupied in Donbas. However, on March 23 the Russian government made an exception for the so-called “DPR” and “LPR”. One hundred and forty human rights organizations have appealed to the Russian authorities and international leaders to take immediate action by addressing the healthcare needs of prisoners in Russian jails and in the occupied territories.   

Has coronavirus spread to the occupied areas in Donbas?

Ukraine’s reports. On March 13 Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov stated that in occupied Horlivka, in Donetsk region, 12 cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection were detected. He did not mention the information sources.   

On March 24 the press office of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine reported that the occupation authorities conceal the spread of coronavirus in the occupied territory. 

What do human rights defenders say? Eastern Human Rights Group. According to the Eastern Human Rights Group (Skhidna Pravozakhysna Grupa), two weeks ago residents in the uncontrolled areas kept being convinced that in “DPR” they’re dying from swine flu not coronavirus. Currently, self-isolation of patients with pneumonia is controlled by the so-called “Security Ministry”, doctors sign the non-disclosure agreements, in some hospitals of Makiyivka and Donetsk autopsy is performed on those who possibly died of coronavirus. Autopsy results are classified.     

Eastern Human Rights Group quotes medics working in the occupied areas saying that in the uncontrolled area of Donetsk region 571 persons sought medical care for upper respiratory tract infections (URTI), 132 – for pneumonia. The so-called “DPR authorities” decided that patients with symptoms of COVID-19 should be treated outside Donetsk. Twenty-five beds were prepared in hospitals outside Donetsk for patients that might need intensive care, 545 more beds were made ready for rest of the patients. In the uncontrolled territory in Luhansk region, there are 710 individuals with URTI and 103 with suspected pneumonia. 

In previous years no similar data was collected, so it is not possible to say if the numbers have increased.

What does Red Cross say? Oleksandr Vlasenko representing the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Ukraine supplies humanitarian assistance and medical items in Donbas, told Hromadske that there is next to no information on coronavirus spread in the so-called “DPR” and “LPR”. He explained that the Red Cross only supplies the medicines that local “administrations” ask for.

Vlasenko said he is not sure if coronavirus tests are available in the temporarily occupied areas in Donbas. He considers possible testing in the so-called “DPR” and “LPR” being rumors. ICRC has not received any requests coming from the uncontrolled territory to send tests.

He is not in possession of the information on ventilators’ availability adding that even if they are available in the occupied areas, their quantity will not be enough in case the virus spreads.

Crimea: seven cases confirmed and many deaths from pneumonia

As per official reports, seven coronavirus cases have been registered in Crimea.

What’s known so far, is that the patient 1 is a resident of Yevpatoria in possession of the Russian passport. He recently returned from France where he travelled with the Ukrainian biometric passport. The infected resident of the occupied Crimea is not included in the official COVID-19 statistics in Ukraine. 

Residents of Crimea emphasize the lack of information.

This spring the level of URTI in Crimea exceeds the baseline threshold by seven per cent, the occupation authorities say. Quarantine has not been imposed in the peninsula, while mass gatherings were banned and temperature checks were introduced on entry at the airports. Schools and universities were not shut down, there are rather some exceptions – they are some universities or particular classes that have many sick pupils.

A nurse working in a hospital in Crimea told Hromadske that when a patient with COVID-19 symptoms that returned from abroad is taken to hospital, they are tested and two-week quarantine is imposed for the entire hospital without a possibility for different units to interact.

She claims there are many deaths from pneumonia in the peninsula now, two people she knew died recently. It happened before the first COVID-19 case was confirmed.

The nurse proceeds that hospitals are now only taking critical patients, all elective surgeries were cancelled until April 12. All medics are changing masks every two hours. The hospital where Karyna works has no coronavirus tests. They got six ventilators. Karyna says, it’s not enough, but additional procurement is not on the agenda. In Simferopol it is only possible to take samples from an infected to detect pathogenic fungi and bacteria. 

On March 21 local media in Crimea reported that almost three hundred persons are suspected to have coronavirus. At the same time occupation authorities said Crimean hospitals are ready for the possible outbreak of coronavirus, they are allegedly equipped with 71 sterile isolation units, a number of beds across departments, and separate emergency vehicles. Sevastopol hospital has got the only transportation unit for critical care patients available on the peninsula. Russian occupation authorities set up a hotline. There is no exact information about availability and quantity of equipment for mechanical ventilation. Some hospitals received it under occupation, and there is a number of ongoing procurement procedures.