Ukrainian riot police used tear gas Tuesday to clear anti-lockdown protesters from the Maidan, Kyiv's central square and backdrop for the 2014 popular uprising that toppled former President Viktor Yanukovych.
Several thousand protesters, including small-business owners, rallied against a planned nationwide coronavirus lockdown slated for January 8 — a day after the widely celebrated Orthodox Christmas holiday. Police moved in to break up the demonstration as people began pitching tents on the square.
The latest anti-lockdown uprising since April but the first to turn violent, Tuesday's protests come amid signs of a worsening pandemic and widespread claims that coronavirus case numbers are being suppressed by local and regional officials.
Residents in towns and villages in Ukraine’s west and north tell VOA that hospitals are short of medical staff, who are either falling sick themselves or sometimes refusing to work without personal protective gear. Hospitals in some areas have reached capacity for intensive care patients.
Authorities said 40 police officers were injured in the clashes, some of them suffering chemical burns to their eyes when protesters threw tear gas canisters back at them.
Protesters also suffered injuries, with some being hospitalized, according to the UNIAN news agency.
Since April, small-business owners and entrepreneurs have led a string of anti-lockdown demonstrations opposing tough restrictions and weekslong quarantines that they say wreck livelihoods while failing to contain the spread.
Ukrainian authorities have reported more than 909,000 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, and about 15,000 fatalities. The highest incidence rates have been recorded in Kyiv and the Cherkasy region of central Ukraine, according to the health ministry.
On December 9, the Ukrainian government announced it would impose a new strict national lockdown from January 8 to 24. On Monday, the government also announced pre-holiday restrictions starting on December 19 that will prohibit large gatherings in schools, restaurants and entertainment centers.
The pre-holiday restrictions limit the number of people allowed to attend religious services, and restaurants will have to close from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Ukraine’s small businesses have received little or no pandemic compensation, although the government is now offering a one-time payment of Hr 8,000 ($288).
Last month, Ukraine Health Minister Maksym Stepanov warned that the country faces a “very severe” winter but said there would be no weekslong nationwide lockdown as regular weekend lockdowns were stabilizing case numbers.
“I can say with confidence that if we adhere to these measures, we will be able to stop the growth, at least stabilize it where it is now,” Stepanov said in an interview with Reuters. But he conceded that, in his opinion, the winter “will be very severe in terms of morbidity and the number of seriously ill."
President Zelenskiy, who contracted the coronavirus last month, says he is overseeing preparations for the purchase of vaccines and the roll-out of a mass-inoculation program.
“We must be ready with a plan of action for vaccination," he recently said. "The state must decide who will be vaccinated first, how many patients hospitals will be able to vaccinate within a month, and most importantly — we must help medical institutions with vaccines.”
The World Bank approved last week a new loan for Ukraine aimed at helping to support low-income families. The $300 million loan comes as the international financial institution has projected the poverty level in Ukraine could reach 23% by the end of the year.
“The new funds will help finance Ukraine's COVID-19 social protection emergency response by introducing fast cash transfers to individuals and households who have lost their jobs or income sources because of the pandemic,” the bank said in a statement.