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Voices From the Pandemic: Bearing Witness to Christ’s Love in Ukraine

Andrij Waskowycz is president of Caritas Ukraine.

Ukraine has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, there was guarded hope: Only several days after the first case was diagnosed on 3 March, strict quarantine measures were announced. Nonetheless, the figures began to multiply and the quarantine has been extended several times. An “adaptive quarantine” has run through most of the summer. Statistics over the summer were quite discouraging — among the worst in Europe these days — so for Caritas, the charitable arm of Ukraine’s Catholic community, it means we still have a lot of work and will face many challenges.

For me personally, the COVID-19 situation has been a significant challenge. I have had to deal with it as an ordinary individual, who needs to keep safe and adhere to all quarantine rules, and as the president of one of the largest charitable institutions in Ukraine, and do everything possible to keep the staff safe, run a multitude of projects and reformat them to meet quarantine realities and restrictions if and when appropriate.

On paper this could have been easy: Just close the office, organize remote IT access and keep working. But we are not a typical office at all — we are Caritas. Every day, our team members from more than 30 offices across the country help people in need: children and youth; people with special needs; lonely elderly people who usually don’t leave their homes and are wholly dependent on our social workers; people living along the conflict line in eastern Ukraine; and those who have had to flee their homes because of the conflict, and so many others. The pandemic and subsequent quarantine have made them all much more vulnerable, which only means that Caritas needs to be even more active.

To a certain extent, this has been a time of “business-as-usual” for Caritas. Humanitarian crisis response has been one of our core activities, but in the past, we usually dealt with a localized crisis – in a single city or region. With COVID-19, we were suddenly faced with a situation when the crisis affected the entire country. We had to deal with providing assistance to the people most affected by the pandemic, along with a continuation of existing projects dealing with the most vulnerable and also safeguarding the health of the Caritas staff. Immediately, we had to transition our offices to a work-from-home basis that was a real challenge for a fundamentally “hands-on” organization such as ours.

Our Caritas Home Care Program is a perfect example of how we have had to transform our work. Due to its nature — assisting the elderly with limited mobility — we simply could not stop delivering our services. Nonetheless, our staff has faced a real challenge: How to continue visiting people who are in the highest risk group for COVID-19 infection? And so we have worked in full manual mode, analyzing each specific case. Solutions might involve neighbors or addressing issues by phone.

The quarantine also meant that public transportation in most cities was closed, making it nearly impossible to reach those in need across Ukraine’s vast cities. In some cases, we have used private vehicles and volunteers while in some cases special permits were obtained for limited public transportation. In fact, our Home Care Program was the only one that remained fully functional during the quarantine, although we had to stop work in Dnipro, after our social worker there tested positive for COVID-19. All employees were sent into self-isolation and home care services were suspended.

“People are in real need of emotional support, stress management and emotional self-control skills. They also need the ability to learn how to cope with trauma, sudden change, loneliness, conflict management and how to communicate clearly.”  

Andrij Waskowycz

Many local Caritas organizations in Ukraine take care of younger people with special needs, those who regularly visit special centers for art therapy, and so on. Suddenly the quarantine resulted in the closure of these centers and our people found themselves confined to their homes. How could we explain what quarantine means? How could we help the parents who used to have a bit of spare time while their children were in Caritas centers? We have received numerous reports from our staff about increased anxiety and panic among beneficiaries, and a deterioration of the psychological condition of their primary care-givers, their parents. Our program teams have had to respond quickly, and now our staff reports that the situation has stabilized.

With COVID-19, every person risks infection, but the most vulnerable part of the population faces the greatest risk of infection. Quarantine measures have seriously affected the welfare of citizens across Ukraine. Surveys reveal that more than 61 percent of respondents report that their family’s economic situation has deteriorated while Ukrainian government forecasts now show an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent, which is much higher than originally projected. The actual figures, however, are actually much higher as many people prefer not to register with the Employment Service.

Experts note that between 2 and 3 million people in Ukraine need some sort of direct assistance. At Caritas we are receiving an increasing number of requests for psychological and social assistance as well as material help. There are a growing number of calls to special hotlines as people have lost their jobs as businesses close. Our staff reports that beneficiaries now need assistance with food and hygiene supplies. Our special heroes are the psychologists. People are in real need of emotional support, stress management and emotional self-control skills. They need the ability to learn how to cope with trauma, sudden change, loneliness, conflict management and how to communicate clearly.  

Caritas is a faith-based organization, but we help all regardless of religion, race or social status. We help people in need. But we understand that in such especially stressful times, people need spiritual support more than ever. Although Caritas is the charity of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which has millions more parishioners in western and central Ukraine than in the eastern portion of the country, we are fully engaged nationwide. For example, Rev. Vasyl Pantelyuk, director of Caritas Donetsk, regularly visits settlements located in the buffer zone close to the conflict line, sharing the humanitarian mission of Caritas. Our support is critically needed by those who are under constant stress and chronic desperation. In Lviv, in western Ukraine, as part of an initiative of the church’s Sheptytsky Hospital, NGOs and clergy of all confessions signed a memorandum of cooperation and established an Ecumenical Committee for Medical and Social Assistance, which is now implementing the COVID charity program.

As if the pandemic was not enough, heavy rains at the end of June resulted in the flooding of dozens of towns and villages in western parts of the country, destroying many homes, roads and bridges. Significant numbers of people lost their properties and their savings, unable to buy basic everyday items. Hundreds of people are homeless. In an appeal to the faithful of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and to people of good will in Ukraine and throughout the world, Major Archbishop Svyatoslav Shevchuk characterized the flooding as the worst in the last hundred years. Given the dimension of the devastation, he asked the international community and humanitarian organizations to respond to the needs of those who have become victims of the disaster.  Immediately following the flooding, Caritas Ukraine began assisting the victims of the flood in affected towns and villages, reaching the most vulnerable people.

Whether responding to the humanitarian crisis created by war in eastern Ukraine, the hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic or the disastrous devastations of flood waters in Ukraine’s western regions, members of the dedicated family of Caritas Ukraine are bringing hope to a suffering people, bearing witness of Christ’s love for those in need and profound despair.

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