As coronavirus crisis adds to challenges in eastern Ukraine, UNDP steps up its response

April 8, 2020

Photo credit: Yevhen Honcharenko

The novel coronavirus pandemic is now affecting practically every country on the planet. In Ukraine, prompt action by the government gives hope that the outbreak here will be more limited in scope than in other parts of Europe.

Unfortunately, Ukraine is also still coping with the lingering effects of six years of conflict in the east of the country, and the novel coronavirus pandemic accentuates those effects in a number of ways.

First, the pandemic puts unwelcome extra strain on the region’s health system, which has long suffered from underinvestment in both infrastructure and personnel. Second, the quarantine restrictions put in place by the government have serious socio-economic effects, restricting people’s movement and leaving many without work.

Against the background of the ongoing conflict, the pandemic is also challenging the fledgling trust and social cohesion among the affected population. On top of that, the region is undergoing the complex reform process of decentralisation, and the local authorities are trying to cover many existing governance gaps with scarce resources.

But the United Nations Development Programme in Ukraine, in responding to the spread of the novel coronavirus, is not starting from scratch: Before the COVID-19 outbreak, UNDP was already working in all of the areas now being affected by the pandemic.

In its role as integrator of the UN Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme (UN RPP) UNDP brings together the unique expertise of four agencies (UNDP, UN Women, FAO and UNFPA) to help build peace, social cohesion and resilience in the most affected communities in the east of the country.

Under its health procurement programme, UNDP in Ukraine has since 2015 been procuring vitally needed medicines and medical equipment on behalf of the Ukrainian government, while making great savings of government funds using its expertise and reputation. And through the Early Recovery Programme in Ukraine, funded by the European Investment Bank, UNDP has overseen projects to overhaul hospitals and health clinics in the east of the country.

In the region, UNDP has already got over 800 businesses standing firmly on their feet, providing them with funds, skills, access to markets and exposure to best practices and B2B contacts, both in Ukraine and abroad. This has resulted in the rebirth of a number of value chains, but more importantly in the creation of almost 4,000 jobs in the east, where unemployment has long been a scourge. 

UNDP has also been working to strengthen the local authorities in the east, which are taking their first steps on the path of decentralisation, improving the provision of government services, and thus trust in the authorities.

The outbreak of COVID-19 adds many new challenges, which UNDP is now addressing.

The resources of the health sector are of course under severe strain. As an immediate response, UNDP is spending over US$200,000 on buying PPEs and other medical supplies for hospitals in the east, supporting the medical personnel who are on the front lines of the fight against the virus.

Reacting to the challenges connected to the COVID-19 quarantine, UNDP is working with the businesses it has supported, helping them to adapt by obtaining grants, opening online stores, making full use of the opportunities offered by the government (tax breaks and so on), and aiding owners in digitising their operations as much as possible. We are also working with the state employment services, expanding their support to those unemployed, and striving to match the skills available on the market to the needs of new businesses.

UNDP continues to support dozens of target communities in the east: amalgamated and soon to be amalgamated hromadas. The work on their strategies, be they development, fiscal, or environmental, has not stopped for a minute – it just moved online. People continue to work tirelessly on planning their common future.

A growing fleet of fully equipped mobile Administrative Service Centres (ASCs) is covering ever-greater areas with the provision of services: from registering a birth, a land plot or a business, to getting support with social assistance. These ASCs are great tools in fighting the virus: bringing services to the people, they allow for physical distancing and let vulnerable people, especially the elderly and persons with disabilities, obtain government services near or in their own homes. The mobile technologies that are being piloted under UNDP-led projects in the east are the future for covering large territories and bringing trust in the state back to its citizens.

Safety and security, as well as access to justice, of course remain on the top of the agenda of all residents affected by the conflict. These have become ever more important during the COVID-19 crisis, as respect for human rights and personal safety could be overshadowed by the need to impose a strict quarantine. UNDP is standing by its long-term partners in the east – the local police and emergency services – by providing them with PPEs, disinfectants and sprayers, to make sure the virus does not spread, while law enforcement agents are well protected against infection.

Meanwhile, community security working groups continue their work online: Zoom and Skype are bringing together local authorities, civil society, parents of local school students, and the community police to discuss ways to better react to the challenges COVID-19 is posing to their communities.

With UNDP’s support, all emergency services in government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts have installed secure and reliable conference call systems and can now coordinate their efforts online. We have also supported the coordination centre for legal aid in moving its services online and continuing its efforts to support citizens in the east, as well as providing a helping hand for those who cannot travel to the closest legal aid centre.

The UN RPP is taking another important step: Through a grant competition, it aims to provide funds for projects created by local civil society organizations and activists to counter and alleviate the impact of COVID-19 across the conflict-affected communities. The grants are supporting community-based initiatives to assist the most vulnerable groups of people (such as older people, people with disabilities, large and needy families, young persons from the vulnerable to COVID-19 infection target groups), as well as helping to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and provide psychosocial care and support.

The projects funded under this competition will help combat the pandemic through raising awareness, collecting data on needs and challenges, developing online services and platforms, self-organizing people into volunteer self-help groups, spreading information and developing online consultation services for preventing and counteracting domestic violence and/or gender based violence, and encouraging public engagement with the police and State Emergency Service to ensure public order and security is maintained during quarantine.

Eastern Ukraine has already seen six years of crisis and recovery. It is regrettable that communities in the east have been hit again with a new threat, but they have demonstrated resilience in the face of adversity many times before, and will do so again.

And UNDP and the UN will again be there for them, helping them cope with the latest challenges, and traveling with them on the path of development towards a sustainable, equitable and secure future.

Victor Munteanu is the manager of the United Nations Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme