Mar 7, 2022 | All posts, Country reports, Letters from...

By Alexandre Sidorenko
Senior Advisor, European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research (Vienna, Austria).
Member of the Board of HelpAge International.
Former Head, United Nations Programme on Ageing.

I am a 72 year old Ukrainian, born in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. Most of my life I spent in Kyiv. For more than 20 years I was in charge of the UN Programme on Ageing. I am writing these notes from the comfort of my apartment in Vienna, Austria. My thoughts, however, are with my home country, Ukraine.

It is firmly established that older persons have been the major victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. Older people of Ukraine are no exception. In the most general terms, anti-epidemic measures in Ukraine were insufficient. Only a third of Ukrainians have received two doses of the anti-COVID vaccine. In February 2022, hope appeared and began to grow stronger: the number of infected in Ukraine, as in many other countries, began to decline.

On February 24, the light of hope at the end of the pandemic tunnel went out and was replaced by flashes from bombs and rockets exploding in Ukrainian cities. The Russian invasion had begun. From February 24, 2022, Johns Hopkins University stopped uploading information about the COVID-19 pandemic in Ukraine, as any such information was no longer being reported. Epidemiological surveillance was of the pandemic was superseded by reports of the wounded and the dead.

It is known from history that the statistics of a war, especially at its beginning, are not reliable. There are simply no data on the situation of older people in Ukraine now. The following notes are based on reports that have been verified in some way or obtained from reliable sources.

During the shelling and bombardment of Ukrainian cities and villages, frail older people simply cannot physically move to safe shelters and remain in their homes. Older people living alone are left without supervision and care and cannot evacuate on their own, and the opportunity to get help is extremely limited.

The evacuation itself is dangerous. From a small town near Kyiv, which was bombed the day before, the local authority tried to take people out by local train. On the eve of the evacuation, Russian troops blew up the railway tracks, the train derailed. Attempts were made to take the evacuees on foot to the nearest station closer to Kyiv, but they were fired on and were forced to return. Several people were killed.

The evacuation of the population goes to the west of the country. The trains are not just overcrowded, they are packed to capacity. People have to ride standing for 12 or more hours. Older people with chronic diseases are not able to withstand such travel conditions.

Often, older family members insist that children and grandchildren leave without them, so as not to be a burden on the road. Family members have to make a devastating choice between rescuing children and grandchildren and rescuing infirm relatives or older neighbours.

Medical care for chronically ill is practically inaccessible as hospitals are treating wounded soldiers and civilians.  Most pharmacies are closed, and life-saving medicines are not available, especially for older persons in small towns and rural areas. Supply routes are blocked in many places or subjected to periodic shelling by the Russian army.

In the psycho-neurological hospital located in Borodyanka, near Kyiv, 600 patients are being treated, mostly older people and people with disabilities. The hospital was captured by a special unit of the Russian army. The soldiers of the unit prohibited the removal of patients and took up positions under the walls of the hospital building, using the infirm people as cover.

These notes do not imply political content. But it is impossible not to say that despite the humanitarian and military assistance provided, Ukraine has been left to fight against the huge army of the aggressor alone. Tragic consequences are inevitable.