The civilization of any society is determined by its attitude to the weakest. The crisis caused by COVID-19 has revealed the most acute problems of the Ukrainian society, in particular, vulnerable groups of population have been affected.
Who belongs to those groups? In general, these are people who are at greater risk of poverty and social isolation, rather than society as a whole. These are those who, due to factors beyond their control do not have equal opportunities with others – those who are more fortunate.
There are still many disputes regarding the concept of “social vulnerability” and the factors that cause it. But the WHO definition can be a good starting point, especially in the conditions of current crisis in the field of health and the economy. According to the WHO, ”children, pregnant women, the elderly, the sick, and those who are malnourished and have weakened immune system become particularly vulnerable in the event of natural disaster and bear the burden of diseases related to emergencies”. Poverty and its main consequences, such as malnutrition, homelessness, poor housing conditions and impoverishment are the main causes of vulnerability.
According to UNICEF Ukraine, large families, single parents, families with children under the age of three and single pensioners over the age of 65 are the most affected. In particular, the poverty rate of children is expected to increase from 33 to 51%. The impact of this catastrophe on people’s current lives and the development of future generations is difficult to overestimate. But is it really possible to prevent this? Is it possible to do something to at least reduce negative consequences?
Although the most pressing issues cannot be addressed without systematic government action, local initiatives and targeted assistance can provide vital temporary support to those who in most need.
Establishing efficient communication with vulnerable groups of population, as well as with those who try to help them, can be the beginning of a response. And while the most pressing issues cannot be addressed without systematic government action, local initiatives and targeted assistance can provide vital temporary support to those who in most need.
Imagine that you are in such a miserable situation that you need to part with one of your own children to ensure the survival of others. It is difficult to describe the whole hopelessness of this situation. Unfortunately, many Ukrainian families are in these conditions, as a result of which over 100 thousand children live in boarding schools without constant contact with their parents. Due to the quarantine, tens thousands of these children were returned home without appropriate analysis of current situation in the family. In many cases, parents do not have sufficient psychological and material resources to raise these children.
One of those who came to help was NGO “Hope and Housing for Children”. Halyna Postoliuk, regional director of the organization, said: “Jointly with social workers, we started providing targeted assistance in Dnipro raion of Dnipropetrovsk oblast. Most families lack the essentials – food. Some families actually live in barracks 10-15 km from the nearest bus stop. Even in usual times, the purchase of bread or medicines turned into a real “quest” for them, and with the closure of transport the situation has become even more difficult. Parents say that financially it is more difficult for them now than ever. Many of them went on unpaid leaves and lost support even in the form of free boarding. For parents, this burden can be too heavy, but there are children who gladly agree to limit themselves in food to feel the joy of living with family for at least a few weeks. I will never forget 12-year-old Tymofii, one of those children who were returned home for the quarantine. While other children are bored in isolation, Tymofii says: “I am happy with the quarantine, because now I can live at home with my parents and sisters”. His history once again confirms: we as a society must do everything to make a loving family (and not a state institution) the place where a child will grow up”.
Not all parents of returned orphans are now able to take full care of them. But there are other children whose families find it extremely difficult to make ends meet. These are children with disabilities. In Ukraine, the number of such children increases every year. As of 2017, there were almost 160,000 such children. NGO “The Rivne 100 Percent Life Network” is trying to help such families. Its executive director Hanna Kotenko said that with the support of the European Union, they organized the purchase of medicines, nappies and special food for almost 50 such families in seven regions of Ukraine.
However, the activities of NGO “The Rivne 100 Percent Life Network” are not limited to helping children with special needs. We must never forget that there are those among us for whom coronavirus is particularly dangerous. Adherence to the quarantine rules is vital for these people. For this reason, NGO “The Rivne 100 Percent Life Network” launched the “Remove the Crown” movement, within which the volunteers deliver medicines and products to people who are the most vulnerable to COVID: the elderly, people living with HIV, tuberculosis, and diabetes.
Unfortunately, Ukraine still remains the leader among the European countries by the number of HIV-infected: over 346,000 cases of HIV infection have been registered in the last 32 years. As of autumn 2019, more than 136,000 HIV-infected Ukrainians received medical care. At the time of the quarantine, some of them were abroad and could not return home – and thus lost an opportunity to receive antiretroviral therapy. Volunteer Yurii Lazarevych said that the “Remove the Crown” activists organized the delivery of medicines to these people abroad, as well as united with representatives of the European communities of HIV-infected people to provide medical and legal support to our compatriots.
While the chronic diseases make a person more vulnerable to current health crisis, volatile incomes cause increased vulnerability to the economic consequences of a pandemic. Women who lost their sons and husbands in the war in the eastern Ukraine have to fight not only the grief of loss – today many of them do not have an income that would cover at least basic needs. NGO “Association of Wives and Mothers of ATO Fighters” helps women who find themselves in difficult life circumstances: provides them with food kits, as well as legal and psychological support.
“We understand that humanitarian aid is an important but temporary solution”, said Nataliia Muzyka, the NGO’s board chairman. – Our goal is to help these women become more independent. In particular, in the conditions of the quarantine, we conducted a series of thematic webinars on additional earnings. The wives of veterans who had already mastered new skills or professions shared their experiences and insights with others. Master classes on cooking gingerbread, drawing, etc were held. And the “peer-to-peer” principle works here to the fullest extent! If, say, a woman from a remote village does not believe that someone will buy her products, only the same woman who has already passed this way will be able to convince her. For our part, we provide PR support. The feedback is inspiring: many girls say that due to the monetization of thier hobby, they receive an additional income of 2-3 thousand hryvnias per month”.
Currently the organization takes care of 600 women from Zhytomyr oblast (with the support of the Ukrainian Women’s Foundation) and 800 – from Kyiv oblast. There are plans to cover other regions of the country.
When I called the next interlocutor, Olena Oliinyk, she was preparing lunch for the homeless. “Once at the very beginning of the quarantine, I thought: we are afraid to go to the grocery store once again, and there are people on the edge of survival next to us on the street”. Olena and her friends found an organization that distributes lunches to homeless people in their area and said: “We will bring 70-80 servings of soup, trimming, meat and salad every Wednesday”. “I myself have repeatedly distributed food, and you know what impressed me the most? These people never take too much. Even when I accidentally handed someone a second serving, a person said: “No, no, thank you, give it to others, I’ve already eaten mine”. This level of care among those who actually have nothing is very impressing”.
Against the background of disturbing news, we sometimes forget that mental health is also one of the basic human needs. In an attempt to satisfy more obvious physical needs, the psycho-emotional condition is often overlooked. The unprecedented situation we are all facing now can also have a profound effect on our inner statcondition. “House of Light” is a telephone psychological support line provided by more than 20 psychologists and 5 priests.
The initiative was launched by Uliana Butrynovska from Chortkiv, Ternopil oblast. “The most common reason for contacting us is fear. People are afraid – for themselves, for relatives, for the future. We talk to them, offer simple but efficient practices – it helps. In two months of work, my colleagues and I made sure that, in addition to the virus, our biggest enemy is fear. And it is possible to overcome it with true information and simple human compassion”.
The stories in this article illustrate a truth we all know very well: poverty, like illness or lack of family support, makes us more vulnerable to any crisis. The truth we don’t want to know is that anyone can be vulnerable. We may be healthy now, but there is no guarantee that we will not get sick in the future. Maybe today we are young and strong, and if we are lucky, we will live to old age. We can be financially successful now, but we never know what awaits us in the future. Vulnerability is not what happens to someone else. It is part of our human nature. And we can overcome it only in cooperation, combining our resources.
All stories we told were gathered within the framework of the #BeatCOVID19 initiative, which is part of the European Union’s information campaign “Civil Society is YOU” launched in April this year. Its purpose is to show how civil society is adapting to these difficult times and how someone’s life can change for the better with the participation of caring people. The real stories of #DolaiemoCovid19 show that “little” help is also important – any contribution is significant, and everyone can join the important deed.
Author: Olha Koval