KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine reached 10,000 coronavirus cases on Thursday and its health minister urged people not to violate lockdown measures that have kept the country’s death toll much lower than in much of western Europe.
In an interview with Reuters, Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said the lockdown could be lifted and life return to some sort of normality by the summer but the government could not risk a second wave of infections by opening up too soon.
The early introduction of lockdown measures had kept the total caseload manageable and avoided excessive strain on the hospital system, he said.
But the government cannot “open up everything and endanger the entire population of Ukraine, because there will immediately be a big outbreak and a peak in the development of this disease,” Stepanov said.
Even after the lockdown is lifted, “there are some things that we will still have to observe, for example, everything related to personal disinfection, protection, everything about handshaking,” he said. “COVID changed the world.”
Ukraine has 10,406 coronavirus cases and 261 deaths. Medical workers account for 2,063 of cases.
Stepanov said his biggest worry was the high rate of infections among doctors — about a fifth of all cases. The government has tripled salaries of medical staff working with patients who have the COVID-19 respiratory disease that the coronavirus can cause.
Ukraine is ramping up its testing rate to 8,000-10,0000 a day next month from around 5,820 now, he said.
“In general, the incidence of medical workers is my biggest headache. And I am very worried about this,” said Stepanov, who took office at the end of March after his predecessor was fired after less than a month in charge.
Stepanov said the government was increasing stocks of personal protective equipment both to fight coronavirus now and against any second wave of infections.
“At the beginning of the epidemic, personal protective equipment was completely lacking,” he said.
The government shut businesses such as cafes, restaurants, markets and cinemas last month, closed its borders to foreign citizens and shut down almost all air and rail travel, causing an increase in job losses.
Anger at the lockdown led to hundreds of businessmen protesting near the government building on Wednesday.
The government has extended the lockdown until May 11 and expects the pandemic to peak in Ukraine early next month. But there are growing signs of public impatience.
“What do we see in the last days? We see rallies, people on the streets, we see traffic jams, we see an increase in the number of people in parks. I understand that being in quarantine for five, six weeks is very difficult,” Stepanov told a briefing after the interview.
“When you go out to rallies or when you start violating the quarantine, don’t think about just yourself. Think about your loved ones whom you can infect by becoming infected at such events.”
Reporting by Ilya Zhegulev and Pavel Polityuk; writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Timothy Heritage