The Bitter Cold Truth

Feb 7th, 2012 | By | Category: Civil Society, In Depth, News, Ukraine

While I’m not experiencing it first hand at this very moment, I’m no stranger to cold weather having grown up in Canada. With 122 people now dead in Ukraine due to the extremely frosty weather Ukraine has been experiencing for just over the last week one has to wonder what really is happening in Ukraine. The number has in fact risen since I first sat down to write this. Clearly neither government agencies nor what exists of civic society in Ukraine seem to care very much about those who are hit the hardest when such climatic conditions occur – the homeless and the poor, and in fact it’s not better anywhere else in the world. Of those who have died to date due to the climatic conditions, 78 of those individuals were found frozen to death on the street, and 32 others were found in buildings which no doubt were either poorly heated or not heated at all. The remainder had succumbed to the effects of severe hypothermia in the confines of Ukraine’s hospitals, which are extremely underfunded, and for the most part poorly heated and have little or no insulating materials in them whatsoever.

While it has been some time since temperatures have reached as low as the -30 Celsius, in Ukraine, I quite clearly remember that back towards the end of January in 2006 the mercury had dipped as low as minus 27 and was sub minus 20 for a few days in Kyiv. It was the coldest winter I had experienced during the many years I spent there. The old wooden door leading out to the balcony from my bedroom of my flat had a about a centimeter of ice on its panes, and the inside temperature was not much warmer than 10 degrees, the space heater did very little in heating a room with ceilings that were nearly three meters high. Having lived through Montreal’s “Ice Storm” of 1998, where I had no power or heating for nearly a week, and having gained from that experience, I know that had I had a tent in January of 2006 it would have made my nights a great deal more pleasant. Tents can work wonders under such dire situations and if used properly indoors can make a sleepless night uncomfortable night into one where you are rejuvenated and able to think in the morning.

So why would I want to think in the morning. First of all, hypothermia is not a simple process and can take some time to develop. It doesn’t have to be minus 20 degrees for someone to start experiencing the symptoms of hypothermia, but let’s say that Ukraine’s bitter cold temperatures of late would definitely contribute to the death of the homeless, who I am certain in sub-zero temperatures suffer many of the early symptoms of hypothermia from being exposed to the elements long before the advanced stages of hypothermia set in. You don’t have to believe me, but having pulled individuals out of the St. Lawrence River when canoeing in early April when the water temperature is just about zero Celsius, I have seen how individuals have lost coordination, and experienced drowsiness as an early signs of hypothermia when the air temperature was nearly fifteen degrees. I am quite certain that those who were found dead on the streets of Ukraine were probably experiencing early signs of hypothermia long before the climatic shift which the geographic territory experienced.

To deal with the current situation the Ministry of Emergency Situations has set up 3,172 heated tents around the country as shelters. How effective such a measure will be is extremely questionable. It like so many other measures will be undertaken to show that the government is doing something at the current moment, but it does not address the problem at all.

As mentioned above, there seems to be very little concern for Ukraine’s homeless and for that matter the poorer segments of the population. Just how many times has anyone currently living in Ukraine seen those who are there to serve and protect helping the homeless to get somewhere that is warm to spend the night? Or working with NGO’s that exist to help the homeless in doing so? In Ukraine it always seems to be an us and them kind of attitude. Those who have and those who have nothing, and this is particularly so amongst public officials. Human life, it seems to me, has little or no value to them.

Can you even imagine the following scenario.

The head of state is flying from his palatial estate to a meeting in Luhansk to shake some people up regarding the Kopanka (illegal mines often employing child labor) fire in the village of Pavlika in the night of February 2, which may have claimed the lives of ten to twelve individuals, according to Konstyantyn Ilchenko, a labor activist and blogger on the politiko.ua site. Vitya is clearly upset, he pounds  his fist on the vacant seat next to him on his AugustaWestland-139 helicopter as they fly over Poltava Oblast. “Damn if we have any more incidents like this one, drawing attention to the Kopanky, I definitely won’t be able to buy that island off the coast of Greece for my retirement home!” For some inexplicable reason he takes a pair of binoculars out of his armrest and starts scanning the land below. What thoughts are going through the gray matter between his two semi-circular canals, we can’t be certain, but it is clear he is looking for something.

From Vitya’s point of view, we through the binoculars see him focusing in on a bench near some small settlement. He sees someone wandering around as if inebriated. But in fact it is a state of confusion caused by hypothermia. The person stumbles and falls. He presses an intercom button and screams at the pilot. “Put this thing down over there, that person is in trouble!” The pilot adeptly examines the area for power lines, knowing they can wreak havoc to such dual PT6C powered aircraft or any other for that matter.

The pilot finds a spot to land the helicopter within about thirty meters of the fallen elderly person and as they prepare to land Vitya says to one of his security no-necks. “Grab the camera; we need to get some good press out of this!” Like some military medical specialist, the nation’s top man opens the door and jumps from his seat as the rotor above slows. He taps on the pilot’s window and screams, “Find out where the closest medical facility is?” He pauses, and yells an order to his no-neck. “Get your ass over there; I need a few good shots of me rescuing that freezing person!”

As he lifts the frail and elderly woman in his arms his no-neck snaps a few photos.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Did he rescue the woman?  Or did he just dump her there to let her die. We will never know!

How likely would such a scenario be in Ukraine? You and I dear reader know the truth.

Though just like this far-fetched scenario, we never know how many individuals, who work in different branches of those who are to serve and protect the population, left individuals to freeze on the streets of Ukraine’s cities, towns and villages.

Though this aside, standard knowledge about health and disease in Ukraine for the general population is still in the Stone Age! When it will change, probably never because the government has to this day, from my knowledge never implemented any type of program to combat the stereotypical myths which exist in Ukrainian society. If it has, it clearly not working because many kids I have met educated since Ukraine’s Independence still somehow seem to believe that they are going to get sick because of a draft. They won’t get sick from a draft, but clearly hypothermia kills.

It’s a process of dying which is a long and slow one, and unless those who are in touch with the homeless and destitute poor in Ukraine, an understand how hypothermia kills, there are certain to be many more deaths in Ukraine due to this silent killer, not only during this bitter cold snap, but for the next few months to follow. Though it is not just this understanding that it necessary, but clear levels of humanitarianism and professionalism amongst the cadres of all civil servants in Ukraine. When we will see that, I’m not sure. But it will be at least one more generation. All those in positions of power in Ukraine are still Homos Sovieticus, no matter what flags they have draped themselves in.

Vasyl Pawlowsky Independent Consultant

The commentary of this was first published on the Ukraine Business Online site.

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