Fighting COVID-19 the Ukrainian Way

Coronavirus has exposed vulnerabilities in Ukraine but also activated private sector and citizen engagement in delivering help. This could accelerate social change if a smart response is adopted and political reforms follow.

Expert comment Published 28 April 2020 Updated 26 August 2021 3 minute READ
Girls wearing face masks at the monument to Chernobyl victims in Slavutich during a memorial ceremony amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images.

Girls wearing face masks at the monument to Chernobyl victims in Slavutich during a memorial ceremony amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images.

Ukrainians are accustomed to crisis. As COVID-19 spread, forest fires were raging in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, turning Kyiv into the most polluted city in the world. The fighting in Donbas continued, claiming the lives of more Ukrainian soldiers, bringing the total to more than 4,000 — and, on top of that, President Zelenskyy overhauled his government. So Ukraine is fighting three battles at the same time — war with Russia, the struggle against its own ineffective system, and now COVID-19.

Every crisis is a reality check — the coronavirus provoked and exposed the strategic vulnerabilities and deep-rooted features of Ukraine’s system of governance. Three trends have come to the fore. First, the inefficiency and paralysis of many state agencies, particularly the lack of coordination between them and the prevalence of vested interests. Second, the reliance of the country’s leaders on large financial-industrial groups (FIGs) to compensate for weak institutional capacity. Third, a strong societal and private sector mobilization to fill the gaps in the dilapidated public health system.

State agencies are rigid and ineffective. Despite the modern Prozorro digital public procurement system, and the government’s allocation of $2.5 million from the early days of the epidemic, the Ministry of Health blocked COVID-related purchases for over a month. This was a tactic by — now ex-minister — Yemets to pressure the state medical procurement agency into appointing a protégé of his as one of its deputy heads.

Lowest testing rate in Europe

Similarly, in some regions, notably Odesa, procurement stalled and orders went to politically connected businesses at higher-than-market prices. Lack of tests and laboratory equipment means Ukraine has administered only 72,000 tests within a population of 42 million to date — the lowest rate in Europe.

Doctors were given orders to ensure they only test patients in hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms and only those arriving from Asia, while ignoring the fact that millions of Ukrainian labour migrants were in Europe. Indeed, the first confirmed case was imported from Italy.

Ukrainian government and public health officials lack information to take informed decisions. There is no accurate electronic database of registered deaths and reporting is lagging behind events. Information on testing availability in the regions is missing.

Thirteen days after the first case of the virus was recorded, Zelenskyy exhorted business tycoons to come to the rescue. Taking a populist tone, Zelenskyy said ‘Ukraine has been feeding you for a long time and it is time that you helped the country’. The tycoons divided the regions among themselves to deliver relief efforts according to the location of their enterprises.

It is believed FIGs have donated around $25 million to procure testing kits, ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE) and disinfectants. This may sound impressive, but many of those same tycoons actually owe millions to the state, some even billions, and cause serious problems by perpetuating the current rent-seeking system, where public resources benefit those groups resulting in serious social losses.

Reliance on these groups makes Zelenskyy a hostage to their favour in any potential reform efforts. It is a dangerous solution, as these tycoons often obstruct Ukraine’s economic development.

An alternative — and more transformative — trend of public-private partnerships is emerging in some regions. Across Ukraine, hundreds of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have led efforts to deliver PPE, support the vulnerable with food supplies, and to procure ventilators for key hospitals.

They have mobilised hundreds of volunteers to deliver assistance and partnered with local non-profits. Fundraising initiatives have begun in Lviv, Odesa, Kyiv and Poltava with donations and expenditure has been posted online for transparency. Companies have repurposed to produce PPE kits and medical equipment. The efforts unfolded quickly and, in some cases, in smooth collaboration with municipal and regional authorities.

Ukraine cannot afford to ‘waste’ this crisis, which could help accelerate healthcare reform, decentralization, modernize governance, and boost citizen empowerment. But for this to happen, the country has to deploy a ‘smart response’.

Such ‘smart response’ means applying a resilience framework that nurtures the agility of the system of governance, ensures a diversity of actors in decision-making, supporting both self-regulation and better coordination. Rather than reaching out to tycoons, Zelenskyy should enter a coalition with true agents of change — SME leaders, volunteers, and mayors who have mobilized effective grassroots action. These actors demand a level playing field with accountable governance and effective state institutions.

Civic COVID-19 response hubs and local authorities should be joined in a network that spans the regions, and connected with the national agencies designing pandemic responses. For a national strategy to be effective, central headquarters should draw information from local communities and manage a ‘team of teams’ in a decentralised fashion.

Ensuring effective public service delivery without compromising integrity and keeping the risk of corruption low should also be a priority of political reform, with volunteers and the private sector ensuring civic oversight of both regional and national funding.

Civic engagement such as this can be transformative as it defies the Soviet legacy of paternalism and expands the belief among citizens that society can work for them. By assisting the relief effort, citizens are gaining valuable insights into quality of public services and participate in holding them to account.

Citizens are also developing a better understanding of the purpose of having effective armed forces, police, border guards and modern hospitals. They are coming to understand the value of taxpayer money and witnessing how corruption erodes institutions.

This survival mobilization — if properly harnessed by the state — could drive transformative change and make Ukraine more resilient, not just against present crises, but future ones too.