By Pete Mooney
The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is going from bad to worse thanks to the Russian military. I thought The Valley Reporter readers would be interested in an on-the-ground perspective. My NGO, Project HOPE, has been engaged since the first days of the crisis. We have good relationships in Poland, having established the Krakow Children’s Hospital many years ago, and this gave us a leg up on mobilizing in Poland, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine itself, where we have teams on the ground actively working. As readers can imagine, the issues are many-fold and complex.
Most obvious is the vast number of refugees streaming across the borders daily. This group is highly visible, but there is a significant amount of aid available, although health care systems in receiving countries are being stretched to the breaking point. EU countries are sending a lot of aid and many of the refugees are moving further west to stay with relatives, friends or even many good Samaritans. So, the problem of large refugee encampments, like those resulting from the Syrian conflict, are less apparent. We have focused our main effort with this group on their serious mental health and safety issues. Most have suffered incredible trauma and stress. They have experienced Russia’s targeting of civilians, been separated from their families, and they have been forced to flee at short notice with few personal belongings, sometimes just the clothes on their backs. Safety is also becoming a major concern. Unfortunately, there is also a small number of bad actors preying on the vulnerable. Bogus “rides west” and other enticements camouflaged as aid are leading to people trafficking incidents and abuse.
Project HOPE is mainly about health care system strengthening. We have been supporting the health care systems in receiving countries, but we are also active in Ukraine, trying to keep that system working as effectively as possible in light of the dire circumstances. There are many people in Ukraine with pre-existing medical conditions, chronic illnesses or other issues who have been unable to flee and who will die without access to care. It has been difficult getting supplies into the country. We have been fortunate that the Polish health care system is close to that in Ukraine, and we have had the ability to get supplies and volunteers in. For example, we were able to support a surgeon in Lviv performing a life-saving heart transplant. He did not have the correct sutures for the operation and, after getting his specifications, we were able to provide the product he needed. Another example; by some estimates, there are nearly 1.3 million diabetics in Ukraine. Without a steady supply of insulin, many of them will die. We recently arranged with Eli Lilly to supply free insulin to the health care system in Ukraine to help with this issue.
It does not help that the Russian military is actively targeting health care institutions, medical personnel and aid workers in an effort to cripple Ukraine’s health care system. The targeting of the maternity and children’s hospital in Mariupol several weeks ago is just one high profile example. When we asked hospitals in the east what they needed several weeks ago, we got a prioritized list of supplies. When we ask today, the response is, “just send anything you can.”
The effort in situations like this devolve down to mundane issues. For example, pharmaceutical products sent into EU countries, even if intended for Ukraine, are subject to European Medicines Agency (EMA) authority. EMA does not recognize FDA approvals, and this can make it difficult to get product into the EU. There is a lot of red tape. Supply chain and logistical capabilities are paramount. UNHCR is playing a coordinating role, but there are so many aid organizations (and individual do-gooders) showing up, some competent and some not, that the situation is highly confused. Unfortunately, many organizations have actively solicited donations, both money and products, but have no capability to deploy.
The work is also becoming more dangerous. I personally wrestle daily with putting our mostly volunteer doctors, nurses and other aid workers in harm’s way. We work hard to protect our people and don’t take pleasure in headlines reporting them killed. Right now, there is very little to distinguish a convey of medical supplies heading east out of Poland from a shipment of weapons. Certainly, the Russian military has demonstrated a lack of respect for any medical or aid markings. However, Project HOPE’s care givers are some of the most dedicated and compassionate people I have ever met, and they are personally putting themselves in harm’s way to help those in need. I don’t think I could hold them back if I wanted to.
If you would like to learn more about Project HOPE’s efforts in Ukraine and elsewhere, please visit https://www.projecthope.org
Mooney lives in Waitsfield and is the board chair for Project Hope.