Gee what’s the best thing that you can do for the world right now in the middle of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic? How about invade another country, especially one that’s already been struggling with Covid-19 and polio?
If you are able to locate Ukraine on a map (which about 66% of Americans can’t do), you probably realize that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is going to have major long-lasting negative geopolitical and economic repercussions. After all, Ukraine is located in a key strategic location, abutting various Eastern European countries such as Poland and Romania. And this military aggression could have a domino effect, perhaps further emboldening Russian President Vladimir Putin to take action against other countries and influencing what China may do to Taiwan. But that’s not all. The invasion could very well create yet another set of public health crises. Welcome to 2022, which is pronounced a bit like 2020 too.
The answer to the question “war, what is it good for,” is not “pandemic control.” But the answer may instead be the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The SARS-CoV-2 could be one of the real winners in Russia’s full scale invasion. Throughout the pandemic, public health experts have been emphasizing that “we’re all in this together.” Yet, the decision to attack Ukraine could be an example of Putin himself first over the interests of the world. The ensuing chaos could further drag out the pandemic, which no one not shaped like a spiky massage ball should want.
Ukraine, like the U.S., has been going through a Winter Covid-19 surge with an average of over 21,000 cases and 210 deaths per day over the past seven days, according the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. To date, only 34.29% of their population has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. That’s about 15 percentage points lower than the vaccination coverage in Alabama. And the words “Alabama” and “doing really well with vaccination” haven’t exactly gone together. The invasion is certainly not going to help vaccination programs in Ukraine since “not getting your head blown off” may in many cases will take precedence over getting more people vaccinated.
Low vaccination rates in general have been a continuing problem for Ukraine, long before the Covid-19 pandemic. Basically, the anti-vaccination force is strong with ones in Ukraine. Last year, Ukraine had at least 20 cases of polio with one child suffering paralysis, because that’s what happens when people aren’t vaccinated against the polio virus. Think about that the next time you get an anti-vaccination message from an anonymous social media account that may or may not be a Russian bot.
The polio outbreak prompted the Ministry of Health (MOH) of Ukraine to sign a national polio control plan on December 30, 2021. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Ukraine hailed these plans, which should have been good news for everyone except the polio virus. However, if you happen to be a gigantic polio virus, Putin may now be giving you a reprieve by putting this national plan in jeopardy.
And what happens infectious disease-wise in Ukraine is certainly not going to stay in Ukraine. People have already been fleeing Ukraine, because people tend to not like getting bombed. In a United Nations Information Service (UNIS) press briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, on February 25, Afshan Khan, Regional Director for UNICEF, Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia, indicated that UNICEF has been preparing for one to five million refugees to flow from Ukraine into neighboring countries and beyond. And, kids, that’s how the world met yet another humanitarian crisis.
Beyond the the polio and Covid-19 issues, the war itself will likely cause a whole host of other health problems. First of all, getting shot would kind of considered a health problem. So would getting parts of your body blown to bits or crushed or a missile hitting you on the head. If you thought Covid-19 can overwhelm the health care system, picture what could happen with Covid-19 plus wartime injuries filling the hospitals. There’s already been at least 127 civilian casualties of war in Ukraine with many more likely to follow. Many Ukrainians are trying to defend their homeland against very stiff odds. Tragically, many will end up badly injured or dying.
Then there’s the emotional and mental stress of going through a war. If getting told to put on a face mask was the worst thing that you faced today, consider yourself to be very lucky. Imagine suffering through a military invasion, worrying about whether you and your family will survive to see tomorrow, and witnessing first hand death and destruction. The Ukrainians are worried about losing their freedom to a foreign aggressor. And in this case losing freedom doesn’t simply mean being told to wear a face covering while buying an extra gigantic package of doughnuts at a Costco:
Moreover, historically not all invading soldiers have been super-polite towards the people whom they are dominating. They haven’t tended to just say, “pardon me” or “sorry for invading you” or “it’s not you, it’s me.” Instead, invading armies have frequently perpetrated assault and other types of violence and abuse. During the UNIS press briefing, Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), pointed out at that the Russian Federation military’s actions were already in violation of international human rights law.
The war will probably disrupt a lot of Ukraine’s daily operations as well, including food and water supply, schooling, sanitation systems, and health care. This could result in even more health problems. The World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and other United Nations agencies have been working to raise funds and provide resources to the people of Ukraine. So the invasion is already costing our society a lot of money.
UN Secretary General António Guterreshas has appealed to President Putin to cease military operations in Ukraine and withdraw his troops, given the risks to so many innocent people, including over 7.5 million children. But chances are such humanitarian appeals won’t work on Putin. So far, the whole we’re-going-to-use-really-really-stern-words-against-you approach from the U.S. and Western Europe hasn’t really seemed had much effect in the stemming the onslaught. Neither has the threat of economic sanctions. Putin even called Russia’s military advancement in eastern Ukraine “peacekeeping operations,” which is a bit like calling a punch to one’s face a “love tap” or “removing a hot dog fragment from your mouth.”
If anyone tells you that what’s happening in Ukraine is no big deal and is nothing to worry about, first ask them whether they can even find Ukraine on a map. Then ask them whether they are a bot from Russia or at least a politician acting like one. In an opinion piece for Newsweek, Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, called Putin’s invasion “the most dangerous moment [Europe] has faced since World War II.” He described it as “the brutal culmination of an eight-year campaign to drag Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence.” It is also a very dangerous moment to the world public health-wise. Russia may have already seized Chernobyl, and there undoubtedly will be much more fallout from this invasion.