Ukraine suffocates amid rising COVID-19 deaths

Ukraine is reeling from a new wave of COVID-19 infections, putting hospitals and their staff at risk of being pushed beyond their limits. With the majority of cases unvaccinated, healthcare workers are urging people to take action before it is too late.

Yuliia Surkova
01 November 2021

“Hope and oxygen”

Early one morning, a thin white cloud envelops Kharkiv Regional Infection Hospital. But it is not the morning mist. It is the emergency oxygen stored here for patients who are dying from COVID-19.

Doctors emerge from the intensive care unit in protective overalls, pushing stretchers that carry the bodies of the dead to the morgue. Today there are ten and every day there are more. The cause of death is always the same – COVID-19.

Reanimation department at hospital

The doctors, who work around the clock to save lives, try to finish transporting the bodies to the morgue by 7AM. That way, they can be back on the intensive care unit in time to give hope to and answer questions from anxious visitors who have arrived to see their relatives. Hope and oxygen are all the people on these wards have left now.

Doctor sitting at the table

There are more than 250 patients at Kharkiv Infectious Diseases Hospital, who require up to 10 tons of oxygen each day. Everything here is struggling to keep up – both the equipment and the exhausted staff.

Infectious disease specialist Daria Shulha adjusts a patient’s oxygen mask. “Don’t touch it,” she tells them. “You need a mask now. This is oxygen. This is what saves your life.”

Infectious disease specialist Daria Shulha adjusts a patient’s oxygen mask.

The intensive care department where Daria works has six beds, each with an oxygen supply. Every bed is occupied and mostly with the elderly. There are now twice as many patients on ventilators than usual. Of these patients, 98 per cent are unvaccinated.

Daria does not even need to look at her notes. She knows by heart the names and health problems of each patient. Even on her one day off a week, she cannot forget about the seriously ill patients who she has been treating for almost a month.

“After such a long time, you begin to treat patients as relatives,” says Daria, rubbing her eyes, wearily. “They even appear in my dreams at night.”

Daria knows that the latest wave of COVID-19 deaths could have been avoided if people had been vaccinated.

Doctor standing in the hall of the hospital

“We see the patients at the stage when it will already take an incredible effort to bring them back to life,” she explains. “If people had been hospitalized at earlier stages, and not with an oxygen saturation of 50, it would have been easier to treat them.”

Zinaida Voronina’s condition is similar to that of all Daria’s patients. She arrived at the hospital with an oxygen saturation of 50, having refused to get a vaccine.

“Fifty is a critical number, but I was very well helped here,” says 60-year-old Zinaida, through an oxygen mask. “The doctors did their best so that I could get out of here on my feet. I didn’t get vaccinated because of conflicting rumours about the vaccine. It was scary. Now I’m going to think about vaccination.”

Woman in an oxygen mask sitting on a hospital bed

“Running on empty”

Hospital statistics do not reflect the full scale of the COVID-19 pandemic across Ukraine. Many people never seek medical help, while others receive it at home.

Ambulance standing at the gate

When 86-year-old Halyna from Kharkiv started struggling for breath, her daughter Larysa immediately called an ambulance. Less than an hour later, paramedics hooked Halyna up to oxygen after measuring her saturation, which had dropped as low as 73.

“We weren’t vaccinated,” says Larysa, adjusting her mother’s mask. “I was afraid.”

Larysa wants Halyna to be treated at home, because she is frightened that her mother will die in the hospital. But she hopes for a swift recovery.

Two women in masks and a doctor

For the ambulance crew, this was their twelfth call that day, without a chance to even grab some food or a coffee. Like their colleagues at the hospital, they are running on empty.

“I’m exhausted because people don’t want to take care of themselves,” says Artem, a member of the ambulance crew. “They do not get vaccinated, do not wear masks, do not keep their distance, do not turn to their family doctors in time. I’m tired of all that, because during two years of the pandemic, people really had to develop a sense of self-preservation. And still there are people who do not believe in COVID-19. They most often end up in hospitals.”


Despite the burnout and mental fatigue, Artem says he will continue to help patients. But with each new challenge, he loses faith.

“We work, we try our best and do everything possible to save the sick. But people do not want to save themselves. They are doing everything to keep the infection spreading.”  


“Waiting for help”

Over the course of the pandemic in Ukraine so far, more than 58,000 people have died from COVID-19. Of them, 82 per cent were over 60 years old.

The majority of patients in Kramatorsk city hospital are the elderly. The entrance to the intensive care unit is a plastic curtain with a notice that reads: “Entry is prohibited! COVID-19.” Behind this curtain, pensioner Valerii is fighting for his life.


Even being connecting to an oxygen supply cannot help Valerii.

“I have not been vaccinated,” he says, between rasping breaths. “I’m suffering, I feel pain.”

It is a big effort for Valerii to speak. But he is desperate to deliver one message to all Ukrainians: “Everyone needs to be vaccinated.”

Valerii has since died from COVID-19.


When patients die from COVID-19, relatives are unable to see the bodies of their loved ones due to the danger of the virus spreading. Almost every day, workers at Kramatorsk Hospital attach signs to the coffins that read: “Do not open.”

One of the doctors looks out of the window at a bird, sadly.

“These are the souls of the patients,” he says, quietly.


According to the Ministry of Health of Ukraine, 94.2% of the 27,488 people who were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Ukraine from 11 to 17 October 2021 had not received a single vaccine dose. In the last three months alone, 98.1 per cent of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in Ukraine were unvaccinated (according to the Electronic Health Care System)