A significant COVID-19 outbreak has struck Canadian Armed Forces members deployed to Ukraine to help train Kyiv’s soldiers as the country battles Russian-backed separatists.
Canadian troops are dispersed among 12 locations in Ukraine, a factor that has helped stop the spread. About 200 soldiers are deployed to Ukraine as part of Operation Unifier.
The military will not disclose precise numbers, citing operational security, but Lieutenant-Colonel Melanie Lake, the commanding officer of Joint Task Force-Ukraine, said the deployment has been hit quite hard in a few locations. This includes the combat training centre in Yavoriv, western Ukraine.
Lt.-Col. Lake herself contracted COVID after arriving in Ukraine in March with the latest rotation of Canadian soldiers. The previous commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Sarah Heer, had also come down with COVID and this forced them to miss the transfer of command ceremony on March 29, which was the first woman-to-woman transfer in the history of Canadian deployed operations. Deputies stood in for the two officers who delivered their speeches by phone instead of in person.
Both women have since recovered with no lingering effects, Lt-Col. Lake said.
She said she expects a shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to arrive next week and the Forces will conduct a “vaccine roadshow” across Ukraine starting April 21 to administer first doses to Canadian soldiers. Lt.-Col. Lake describes this as the “light at the end of the tunnel.”
In the meantime, however, the Canadian deployment has paused training operations to focus on protecting itself. “Our security force capacity building tasks are in maintenance mode because I want to keep as many people healthy as possible to receive vaccines without delay.”
Lt.-Col Lake said the Canadian soldiers knew this was a risk of deploying to Ukraine but the contingent is young, healthy and was screened for pre-existing risk factors so it’s less likely to be significantly affected by COVID-19.
“Although a lot of people have been exposed to it, everybody has recovered well.”
She lauded the deployed soldiers who are doing what they can under the circumstances. “People are working from quarantine, and isolation and doing what they can do to contribute.”
Lt. Col-Lake said she caught COVID-19 within a week of arrival. She recalls a “really fuzzy head and it got into my chest a bit.”
Like other soldiers, her concern was not infecting others. “The waves of fatigue were challenging to work through but I could still work through it from my room,” she said.
The majority of the deployed Canadian soldiers were not vaccinated ahead of their Ukraine mission because the Forces have been working on administering COVID-19 doses to what military leadership had determined were higher priority members. These include front-line health care providers in higher-risk settings or who have health conditions themselves that might make them vulnerable to severe forms of COVID-19. It also included first responders, support personnel and those supporting the delivery of vaccine to remote or high-risk areas.
Deployed soldiers are rated “Priority 3″ on the Forces’ vaccination schedule. Lt.-Col. Lake said this prioritization makes sense to her because of the relatively younger age of of deployed Forces members. She said, for instance, she’s happy Canada has focused on vaccinating those who are more vulnerable first, including older Canadians like her parents.
Ukraine itself is in the middle of a devastating third wave of the pandemic, recording a new daily high of 17,479 cases on Thursday. According to Oxford University’s Our World in Data website, Ukraine currently has just over 328 COVID-19 cases per million people, compared with 231 cases per million in Canada and 313 per million in hard-hit Brazil.
The third wave – believed to largely be the new variant first discovered in Britain – has also been the deadliest. More than 300 people have died of COVID-19 every day in April so far, including a record 438 deaths on Thursday.
Lt.-Col Lake said her illness prevented her from attending a recent meeting with NATO’s top general, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, but Lt.-Col Heer stood in for her. “We are good friends and very supportive of each other.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff, told The Globe that Ukraine’s COVID suffering had been exacerbated by a health-care system that was in the middle of carrying out reforms when the pandemic hit.
Another factor has been loose observance – especially outside Kyiv – of lockdowns intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus. In the eastern city of Kharkiv, The Globe saw cafés and restaurants openly defying a government order to close, while signs calling for face masks to be worn are routinely ignored both in Kyiv and the regions.
Mr. Podolyak said a year of on-and-off lockdowns has been particularly difficult in Ukraine, a country that was already struggling economically. “We are not the richest country, and we have less funds to support vulnerable groups during the pandemic,” he said in an interview at the presidential administration building in Kyiv. “We are facing resistance when we propose lockdowns.”
Ukraine has also been slow to secure vaccines, and polls show that nearly half of Ukrainians – a country of vaccine skeptics even before the COVID-19 outbreak – say they won’t take the medicines. When the first batch of AstraZeneca doses arrived last month, there were reports of doses being thrown away because doctors and other medical professionals, who were the first to be offered vaccines, were skipping their appointments.
Taras Berezovets, a Kyiv-based political analyst whose mother died two months ago from COVID-19, said that the country’s handling of the pandemic had been “a catastrophe from the very beginning.” He said there were no beds available in the besieged public health care system, and that even the country’s private hospitals were overbooked. “Even if you have money, it’s not possible to find a hospital bed.”