Virus Outbreak Ukraine

People wait Friday at a vaccination center in Kramatorsk, Ukraine. Coronavirus infections and deaths in Ukraine have surged to all-time highs amid a laggard pace of vaccination, which is one of the lowest in Europe.

On May 1, 1986, a nuclear fire raged into its fifth day in Chernobyl. But 60 miles to the south, in Kyiv, Ukraine’s largest city, communist authorities shepherded school children to march in the annual May Day parade. The children paraded in bright sunshine — through invisible radioactive fallout.

The impact of this betrayal by the Soviet Union, the world’s ultimate nanny state, is clear. Today, Ukraine has Europe’s lowest COVID vaccination rate: 19 percent. Last month, 18 months into the pandemic, 56 percent of respondents to a nationwide poll said they do want to get vaccinated. Although 14 million vaccines are stockpiled across the nation, only 7 million of Ukraine’s 37 million people are fully vaccinated.

COVID’s threat is not abstract. In the six weeks since I moved my family from Ukraine to the Berkshires, confirmed daily new cases have exploded tenfold, hitting 22,415 on Thursday. That day, Ukraine reported its highest daily since the epidemic started in March 2020: 546 deaths. By Ukrainian standards, Kyiv now is a “red” zone — 70 percent of COVID beds are full. Starting Thursday, anyone traveling out of Kyiv had to show a vaccination card or a negative PCR test result to get on a train, plane or bus.

In the Ukraine and in the U.S., opinion polls indicate that behind low vaccination rates is a breakdown of trust.

My 1961 vaccination card reminds me of the day when I and my fellow kindergarteners in Lenox obediently lined up in front of a row of Dixie cups and gulped down our polio vaccines. We did so because our parents and teachers knew first hand the ravages of polio — and they believed Washington’s endorsement of the new vaccine.

Sixty years later, that trust is broken. In the interim, working-class folk were gulled into three losing land wars and then the losing end of NAFTA. The resulting skepticism of government is exploited by right-wing media. But, off camera, the snake oil salesmen and women do not seem to believe in what they sell. Last month, the head of HR at Fox News said that more than 90 percent of full-time staff were fully vaccinated. Similarly, a photo of the inauguration of the newly expanded Fox bureau in Washington showed everyone wearing masks.

On the micro level of Americans living in Ukraine, our trust in our government took a hit late last summer when we learned that the U.S. embassy had quietly vaccinated all employees and their dependents back in March. In Ukraine, COVID vaccines only became available for foreigners in August.

Although vaccines now are largely free in the U.S. and Ukraine, the unvaccinated in both countries tend to be the uninsured and those without family doctors. They live with real fears of medical bills that could wipe them out financially.

In Ukraine, the 1991 collapse of communism led to a two-tier health care system — paid and unpaid.

Last spring, when I came down with a severe case of COVID, a friend got me into an elite clinic. Flat on my back with an oxygen mask strapped to my face, I regularly fished out my Visa card for the administrator with her handheld credit card terminal. The message was clear: no money, no oxygen.

In August, when our son fell out a window breaking both arms, a private ambulance whisked us through the night streets of Kyiv — for a $100 Visa payment at the door of the hospital. Inside the state hospital, treatment was free. But we were encouraged to bring our own food, towels, soap and toilet paper. In September, after we arrived in the Berkshires, doctors at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Springfield did new X-rays. They decided to reset the breaks.

Today, in the U.S. and in Ukraine, mandates are bringing vaccination rates back up. Despite the grumbling, mandates offer a face-saving way out for fence sitters. Faced with the choice — vaccination or unemployment — true antivaxxers prove to be small.

For the future, the battle will be to restore trust in government and medical systems. Last month, 20 years after the World Health Organization declared Europe to be polio-free, a case of polio was detected in Ukraine. The parents of the 18-month-old child in Rivne had been offered the vaccine. They had refused. Now, their child is paralyzed. For babies under 1 year of age, the polio vaccination rate across Ukraine is only 53 percent.

James Brooke, of Lenox, has traveled to about 100 countries reporting for The New York Times, Bloomberg and Voice of America.