(18 May 2020) FOR CLEAN VERSION SEE STORY NUMBER: apus136339, apus136338
A breathing machine at a Ukrainian hospital breaks down, leaving a coronavirus patient gasping helplessly for air. Dr. Olha Kobevko rushes from room to room to see if there is an electrician among any of her other patients who can fix it.
Eventually, she figures out a way to get the device working again on her own.
"We are like in a war situation here, like on a front line!" she exclaims in despair.
Kobevko, 37, is the only infectious disease specialist at the clinic in the western city of Chernivtsi that is supposed to accommodate 60 patients but now holds about 100.
The deplorable conditions — broken or substandard equipment, a lack of drugs, low wages — reflects the meltdown of Ukraine's health care system, which was quickly overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic even with a relatively low number of cases.
The corruption-plagued economy has been weakened by six years of war with Russia-backed separatists in the east. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's year-old administration inherited an underfunded health care system that was further crippled by a reform launched by his predecessor that drastically cut state subsidies.
It has left Ukraine's hospitals without vital equipment. The infectious disease wing of the main regional hospital in Chernivtsi was built more than a century ago when the city was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it lacks a centralized oxygen supply system that is standard in any modern clinic.
The hospital's oxygen supply system is located in just one room, and nurses have to manually refill bags they call "oxygen pillows" every few minutes and carry them to patients elsewhere.
"A patient would beg, 'Air, air, give me air!' and there is nothing you can do," Kobevko said. "You just keep squeezing the bag, unable to save a life. That is the most painful thing, and it costs very little to secure centralized oxygen supply."
The sound of coughs muffled by oxygen masks mixes with the squeaking of medical equipment in the hospital's old building as nurses rush through dimly lit corridors to change the oxygen bags. The air smells of ozone from ultraviolet lamps used to disinfect the wards.
The critically ill are moved to a separate building that has a few ventilators, but it's also filled beyond capacity and cannot always accept extra patients, even those in serious condition.
Ukraine has more than 18,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, with over 500 deaths. Chernivtsi has 2, 647 of those infections, and the city and surrounding region has been a hot spot of contagion, along with another western city, Ivano-Frankivsk, 100 kilometers (60 miles) away, and the capital, Kyiv. Thousands of Ukrainians who had temporary jobs in Italy, Spain and other European countries returned home amid the pandemic and some carried the infection with them.
Ambulance crews arrive with more patients, giving them little chance to sleep, even after an exhausting shift.
Svetlana Padynich is one of the medics on an ambulance crew bringing in COVID-19 patients during her 12-hour shifts.
Lately, workers on the crews have been falling ill. A week ago, one died of pneumonia caused by the virus. Another four medics at her station also have come down with pneumonia but are in stable condition with less-severe symptoms.
"We are experiencing a staff shortage," said Padynich, 42. "Half of ambulance personnel have gotten sick and those who remained have to carry a colossal load."
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