The global swine flu outbreak has become something of a political football in every country where the pandemic has spread, but Ukraine's response to the virus has achieved a new level of blatant politicization. According to a campaign advisor to Yulia Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian prime minister and presidential candidate purposely inflated fears of an ongoing swine-flu epidemic to aid her presidential run.
"We had to create a phantom and then have a white knight riding in to save the day," Taras Berezovets, a senior campaign advisor for Tymoshenko's BYuT bloc, told me in a Kiev restaurant, confirming widespread suspicions among Ukrainian journalists.
Since October, Ukraine has been in the grips of a full-blown panic over swine flu, complete with quarantines, school closures, runs on pharmacies. The Ukrainian health system, already badly dilapidated, was caught off guard and almost 400 people died of the flu in just three weeks.
Tymoshenko flew into action, organizing a delivery of the antiviral drug Tamiflu -- and the requisite press conference -- at the Kiev airport in the early morning hours of Nov. 2. She quarantined nine regions of the country, closed all schools and univeristies, and petitioned the president for $125 million in emergency funds to fight what seemed to be "the plague of the 21st-century plague," as one Ukrainian put it. Incidentally, she also banned all mass gatherings and political rallies -- after she had already had hers.
Although the World Health Organization concluded that "the numbers of severe cases do not appear to be excessive when compared to the experience of other countries," the call for calm was drowned out by Tymoshenko's drumbeat of action. Pharmacies ran out of surgical masks and medicines as panicked Ukrainians dangerously hoarded supplies.
The fracas couldn't have come at a better time for Tymoshenko, the self-styled heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, who was losing the race to the very man the revolution disgraced: Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian-backed candidate. Tymoshenko's second term has been marred by vicious backbiting with her onetime Orange Revolution ally, President Victor Yushchenko, her perceived pandering to Russia on gas deals, and her apparent inability to save Ukraine from the absolute implosion of its economy.