COVID-19 Remains a Threat During the War in Ukraine

Ukrainians Fleeing War Arrive In Krakow

Omar Marques / Stringer / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 vaccination rates were lower in Ukraine than in many other countries before the war began, putting many people at risk for contracting and transmitting the virus. 
  • Because of Russian attacks, important infrastructure, like hospitals, have been damaged or destroyed.
  • A lack of medical care and supplies will pose public health challenges beyond COVID-19 spread.

The greatest threat to Ukraine at this moment, of course, is the advancing Russian army. But collateral threats in this war include hunger, damaged healthcare infrastructure, and COVID-19 outbreaks.  

In Ukraine, COVID-19 vaccination rates are low; only about 34% of the population is fully vaccinated. 

Now, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians—some possibly ill with COVID-19—have been forced to flee to other countries.

“We were looking at just getting vaccination programs going [in Ukraine] amid a lot of misinformation and disinformation campaigns about effectiveness and the safety,” Timothy Erickson, MD, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who is currently coordinating with the World Health Organization (WHO) on Ukraine, told Verywell. “Then comes unprovoked war.”

Public Health Concerns Extend Beyond COVID-19

Falling behind on vaccination isn’t just a COVID-19 problem. Even after the war, vaccinations of all kinds are likely to lag.

“In times of conflict, even vaccination programs that were intact see a profound effect,” Erickson said. “It can take 10 to 15 years to get back to where they were.”

That means future strain is inevitable for an already taxed healthcare system.

“The Ukrainian health system is undergoing an unimaginable stress test, dealing with three simultaneous crises,” a WHO spokesperson told Verywell. “First, COVID-19 was already stretching the health system to its limits, and the pandemic had created a massive backlog of health needs as many people postponed their healthcare. Second, Ukraine has been responding to an outbreak of polio. And now the latest humanitarian emergency is further knocking down a health system that was already reeling.”

In a March 11 situation report on Ukraine, the WHO outlined its top public health concerns in Ukraine right now, including the spread of infectious diseases ranging from COVID-19 to tuberculosis and diarrheal diseases due to “widespread destruction of water and sanitation infrastructure, inadequate vaccination coverage, lack of access to medicines and medical care, population movements, and overcrowding.”

The WHO warns of several other health-related repercussions of a lack of medical care during wartime, such as:

  • Conflict-related trauma and injuries
  • Excess illness and death from noncommunicable diseases, like heart disease and diabetes
  • Deterioration of mental health and psychosocial health 
  • Maternal health risks
  • Escalated risk of gender-based violence
  • Risk of human trafficking

COVID-19 Transmission Will Likely Increase

COVID-19 mitigation measures such as masking and social distancing are extraordinarily difficult now, both for those who’ve remained in Ukraine and refugees who’ve left.

“People are jammed in makeshift bomb shelters in close quarters, some masked, some not, and some are part of a mass migration into [neighboring] countries,” Erickson said. “This could be a fertile ground for a [COVID] variant, so it’s a concern. Maybe not [as much of a] concern as the traumatic injuries that Ukrainians are tragically facing, but COVID-19 is not going to go away, and it could actually get worse with this current situation.”

What About COVID-19 Treatment?

For those in the Ukraine who do get sick, there are two major blockers to COVID-19 treatment right now: the destruction of healthcare facilities and supply issues.

At the start of the war, 1,700 Ukrainians were hospitalized for COVID-19, according to the WHO. Oxygen is essential to their treatment, but is “dangerously” low in supply, according to WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The agency has been working on safe transport corridors from Poland to Ukraine from Poland to deliver medical supplies, including oxygen. But just because it’s in the country doesn’t mean it’s accessible.

“That assumes that people would even leave where they are sheltering to seek care for COVID-19 and other health emergencies,” Eric Toner, MD, senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Verywell. 

The WHO spokesperson said the agency is “working with governments and partners in countries surrounding Ukraine to assess the health needs—including COVID prevention and treatment—of incoming refugees on entry.”

More WHO staff have been deployed to Moldova, Romania, and Poland.

“The information we have is that all refugees entering Poland, Moldova, and other European Union countries will have full access to basic health services, including COVID-19 services,” the spokesperson said. “This includes access to free COVID-19 vaccination. At the moment, we haven’t had any indication from any country hosting refugees that they have a shortage of COVID-19 vaccine.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. World Health Organization. WHO coronavirus (COVID-19) dashboard. Ukraine situation.

By Fran Kritz
Fran Kritz is a freelance healthcare reporter with a focus on consumer health and health policy. She is a former staff writer for Forbes Magazine and U.S. News and World Report.