March 16, 2020 / 10:18 AM / 4 months ago

Ukraine plans more lockdowns, IMF talks, food export curbs over coronavirus

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced nationwide shutdowns on Monday to contain the coronavirus spread, called for government restrictions on food exports and for aid talks with overseas donors to support the economy.

In a special video address, he urged restaurants, shopping malls, cafes and gyms to close from March 17, a shutdown of domestic flights and rail and bus services between cities, and a state of emergency to be declared in two regions.

The finance ministry should hold negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for financial support, the president said, and banks should prepare loan holidays to support small and medium-sized businesses.

Ukraine has so far recorded five cases of the coronavirus, including one death. It has already shut schools and banned the entry of foreign nationals into Ukraine. It will ban passenger flights and trains to and from the country from Tuesday.

Zelenskiy said food exports should be restricted according to a list drawn up by the government of Ukraine, one of the world’s largest grain exporters. It was not immediately clear what items would be on the list.

He said parliament should stay open to pass key reforms, including legislation on the sale of farmland, and to appoint new ministers and a new prosecutor-general following a sweeping government reshuffle earlier in March.

“HARSH SOLUTIONS”

“China’s experience shows that unpopular and harsh solutions overcome the virus and save lives,” Zelenskiy said.

He urged citizens to stay at home except to buy food and medicine, and not to gather in groups of more than 10.

The global coronavirus emergency has weighed on the hryvnia, which slipped to 26 to the dollar last week for the first time since July 2019, prompting the central bank to sell nearly $1 billion in one week to prevent excessive currency fluctuations.

Ukraine secured provisional approval in December for a new $5.5 billion loan program from the IMF, but the money has still not been disbursed and is contingent on the government passing reforms, including land reform, and tackling corruption.

“Rapid reforms are an ambulance for the economy,” Zelenskiy said. “Without them - an economic coma.”

Slideshow (10 Images)

Zelenskiy also asked medical facilities to suspend non-urgent operations to prepare for treating coronavirus patients. The government will hold an emergency meeting later on Monday.

Ukraine has banned the export of face masks, which the head of the customs service Maxim Nefedov said on Monday had become a more popular item to smuggle across the border than cigarettes.

Authorities prevented 130,000 such masks from being sold abroad this weekend alone, Nefedov said. A car with 50,000 masks was detained at a customs checkpoint in Yahodyn in western Ukraine at the border with Poland, prosecutors said on Monday.

Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Matthias Williams and Pavel Polityuk; writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Gareth Jones

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