Ukrainians protest against vaccination as COVID cases soar

Demonstrators gather to protest against COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. In a bid to stem contagion, Ukrainian authorities have required teachers, government employees and other workers to get fully vaccinated by Nov. 8 or face having their salary payments suspended. In addition, proof of vaccination or a negative test is now required to board planes, trains and long-distance buses. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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By YURAS KARMANAU Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — More than a thousand people blocked several streets in the center of the Ukrainian capital Wednesday, protesting against COVID-19 vaccine certificates and state-imposed restrictions aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus.

The protesters, mostly women and young people, didn’t wear masks and held up signs reading “Say No to COVID Passports”, “Say No to COVID Genocide” in front of the Ukrainian parliament building in Kyiv.

The rally comes in response to restrictions that require teachers, government employees and other workers to get fully vaccinated by Nov. 8 or have their salaries suspended.

Last week, Ukrainian authorities also started requiring proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results for people boarding airplanes, trains and long-distance buses.

The measures come as Ukraine reports a record-high level of new infections and deaths from the coronavirus.

Authorities have mainly blamed the surge on widespread public reluctance to get vaccinated. Ukrainians can freely choose between the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines, but just about 17.1% of the 41-million population has been fully vaccinated, which is Europe’s second-lowest rate after Armenia.

“I don’t want to participate in an experiment on myself, but I am deprived of the right to choose,” said Tamara Ustinova, 35, a teacher from Mariupol. “The authorities force Ukrainians to get vaccinated, creating unbearable conditions, but the danger of genetic mutations is much greater than the harm from COVID.”

The police did not interfere with the rally, which was supported by ex-lawmaker Nadiya Savchenko who was detained at an airport a few weeks ago with a fake vaccination certificate.

“The authorities will only aggravate the situation further,” Savchenko said at the rally. “You have the right to move freely around the country, this is everyone’s right.”

Savchenko and the protesters held several prayers in front of the parliament building. The government says that some denominations oppose vaccination, and false rumors about vaccines containing microchips, causing gene mutations or infertility are circulating among believers.

New government regulations and restrictions have spawned a booming black market for counterfeit documents. Fake vaccination certificates are selling for the equivalent of $100-300, and there have been reports of a fake version of a government digital app with fake certificates already installed.

Authorities have opened 1,065 criminal cases over the distribution of fake certificates involving 80 doctors and 35 travel agencies. Police have blocked 40 websites that offered fake certificates.

Parliament has proposed to make the use and production of fake certificates a separate criminal offence, punishable by up to three years in prison or a fine of about $6,460. A bill to that effect has already been supported by lawmakers in the first reading on Tuesday.

“The anti-vaccination spirit quickly disappears in intensive care, and fake certificates do not work there,” Health Minister Viktor Lyashko said at a briefing. “Calls not to get vaccinated are, in my opinion, a mockery of our doctors and families who have lost their relatives.”

In total, Ukraine has reported 2,979,086 coronavirus cases and 69,447 deaths.