Ukrainian MP Warns of Rise in Illness, Death from Impending War-Winter Combination
Ukrainian MP Galyna Mykhailiuk at the UNITE Global Summit
Ukrainian MP Galyna Mykhailiuk at the UNITE Global Summit

A four-year-old asthmatic girl from Ukraine was forced to relocate to a gas station earlier this week where she could connect her ventilator, after a Russian missile attack cut off her city’s electricity supply, leaving her without any other means of receiving life-saving oxygen.

Pictures of her frightened, frozen eyes made social media. But according to a Ukrainian MP, this story is not unique – “there are so many dramatic stories.”

The child, explained Ukrainian MP Galyna Mykhailiuk in an interview with Health Policy Watch, “requires a ventilator to breathe normally. She needed electricity to supply her with oxygen. The only possible option for her parents was to leave their home and take her to the gas station. At the gas station there is a generator.

“You might not think about how energy is connected to health, but there is a direct connection.”

‘Different being an official during war time’

Mykhailiuk spoke to Health Policy Watch during a visit to Lisbon for the UNITE Global Summit, a conference that brought together parliamentarians from around the world on December 5 to 7 to discuss issues of global health.

To get to the conference, the MP had to travel more than 36 hours, taking a 17-hour train ride from Kiev to Warsaw and then two flights. There is no safe airspace over Ukraine, so anyone trying to leave the country has to leave by car, train or foot. The cold weather – some days it is negative 5 Celsius and the ground is covered in ice and snow – can make it dangerous to drive or walk too far.

Mykhailiuk chose to attend the event both, because of her friendship with UNITE President Ricardo Baptista Leite, who volunteered at a Ukrainian hospital in the summer, and so that she could share what is going on in her country with the MPs directly and not through media interpretation, she said.

“It is very different being an official during war time than during peaceful time,” she explained to Health Policy Watch. “I cannot give you details of my day-to-day for security reasons, of course. But it is much more challenging. We work 24/7.”

‘We know diseases are spreading’

Although Mykhailiuk lives in Ukraine, her mother and the rest of her family live in Odessa, where she is originally from. During the UNITE event on Monday, December 5, Russian troops launched a missile attack on two infrastructure facilities in the Odessa region, leaving the region without power. She received a phone call from her older mother on Tuesday complaining that there is no electricity or warm water, and afraid for her life.

The extreme weather conditions for people without heat, proper clothing, blankets or access to supplies leaves them at risk of getting ill or even dying. Mykhailiuk said that flu and COVID-19 are a huge concern for the country.

Moreover, infectious diseases, cholera and dysentery are becoming widespread in the occupied territories, where Russian soldiers have slaughtered civilians and left them on the streets for the animals.

“Twenty percent of our territory is occupied,” Mykhailiuk told Health Policy Watch, “that is like the size of the whole of Bulgaria. We do not have access to these territories, but we know from witnesses the implications and we are recording the evidence.”

She said that in the city of Mariupol, located on the north coast of the Sea of Azov, the Russians were “killing people just for fun” and leaving them all lying all over the streets. “The animals started to eat them – the dead bodies in the streets. We were told the animals have gotten used to human meat.”

Mykhailiuk said many bodies remain decaying, their remains polluting the environment. Residents – the few that remain – have no access to drinking water, since the majority of the water infrastructure was destroyed. The sewage system is also not functioning.

“We know diseases are spreading, and there is no one to help them,” she said.

The MP called on the health community to help with desperately needed medical and other life-saving equipment. She said the country continues to have a shortage of medical supplies for chronic diseases, such as diabetes and for non-communicable diseases like cancer.

“These diseases are not put on hold because of war,” Mykhailiuk said. “So, people are dying. The death rate in Ukraine is now seven times higher than during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is just because of natural diseases and because of stress.”

She said “any kind of medicine would be helpful … we have a desperate need for any kind of help.”

‘A black period of Ukrainian history’

A recent health needs assessment conducted by the WHO Country Office in Ukraine found that “spiraling costs, logistical hurdles and damaged infrastructure are making access to essential services all the more challenging for growing numbers of civilians.”

The survey found that one in three people living in temporarily occupied territories and active combat areas – in comparison to one in five people nationwide – had reduced access to services and medicines.

Specifically, around 50% of respondents said it was difficult to obtain medication for high blood pressure and for heart conditions. Another 41% of respondents said it was hard to access pain medication, 33% said it was hard to obtain sedatives and 32% said it was difficult to get antibiotics.

Mykhailiuk noted that local hospitals are looking for partner hospitals abroad to provide them with supplies. She highlighted a recent incident where an individual died during surgery because the power went out and there were no generators. The doctors could not complete their work with solely their surgical headlights.

Additionally, analyses by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) showed that the war could push 60% or more of the Ukrainian population below the poverty line.

“This is a black period of Ukrainian history,” Mykhailiuk said. “Only with international partners can we survive.”

She added that “time is of the essence” as winter races across the country and the cold weather threatens to take more lives.

“We will continue our resistance until we are victorious,” Mykhailiuk stressed. “We will not stop until we win.

“In these dreadful times, just having our bravery will not be enough,” she continued. “We see ourselves as defending the whole democratic community… The Russians should be held accountable, and international justice should prevail.”

Image Credits: Maayan Hoffman.

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