Saturday, August 8

Is it chaos or just life as normal in the Green Zone

I am beginning to come to the conclusion that we have got our reaction this COVID-19 threat completely wrong. If I am still in good health in a couple of weeks then I will be certain of it. I am writing this in Zhytomyr, a town in Ukraine where I arrived on a very hot Wednesday 5th August. Suddenly, a few days earlier, the UK and Ukraine both became members of the Green Zone by virtue of someone calculating that their number of 'active cases' had fallen below a certain figure and this meant that I was no longer required to go through a hugely complicated process to enter the country.

A short while ago I would have had to download an app which would report my whereabouts and require me to take a photograph of myself in a particular place within 15 minutes of a request to do so. The app was totally written in Ukrainian and indecipherable to me. I had, with the help of my friend, started to enter some data which I had expected to need, when she told me to stop because people had been reporting problems if the address entered did not tie in with the location assessed by the app's geo-location software. Better to wait until I arrive in Ukraine, she suggested, and I could merely show the border patrol people that it was installed. at least.

In addition I would have to be tested at a specified medical place in town within 24 hours of arrival. If I were found to be free of the virus then the app would be notified by the medical centre and it should then inform me accordingly that I need not remain locked in a particular location thereafter. Despite all their best efforts, though, there had been reports of delays in notification and incorrect results too. So i was not too enthusiastic about the prospect of not being able to leave an apartment for the duration of my stay here.

Finally, I would have to demonstrate that I had insurance that would meet the costs of any medical expenses incurred should I get afflicted with COVID-19 whilst in the country. I had purchased suitable insurance in March but, unfortunately, not only would it be invalid as a result of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office not recommending travel to Ukraine but, even if, as it turned out, that restriction was lifted prior to my departure, the company issuing the policy needed to have an administrative office of some sort in Ukraine! Mine didn't. For a while this massive hole in the road for anyone trying to get to Ukraine virtually prevented getting here but then the Powers That Be introduced a nifty button on the VisitUkraine website which enabled insurance cover to be arranged at a quite modest cost for the duration of the trip. I had been worried that there might be an age limit or some restriction for previous health issues but no, oldies like me were accepted and so I was able to see how to overcome one hurdle at least.

I was prepared to take a chance on the results thing but, to my delight, the UK changed from Red Zone to Green Zone and all that testing and quarantine stuff evaporated away, leaving only the insurance requirement and a bundle of papers to show the border patrol officer.

On arrival at Zhulainy Airport, a pleasant and efficient little airport, it soon became clear that most travellers from the UK had not done their homework. They might have learned when they boarded the plane as we were all asked to show our insurance documents. As they arrived at the border patrol officer's window they all started having to dive into their cases once more, not only for the same document but also for some paperwork which would show where they would be staying and with contact details. No-one seemed to have completed the forms and so were trying to dictate awkward-sounding addresses to the officer and it all took a great deal of extra time. Yes, I had everything all ready. I was determined not to fall at that sort of hurdle!

The real surprise, however, came as I left the airport. Almost no-one had a mask or face covering. No-one seemed to pay any attention to what we call social distancing. Taxi drivers were just like they had always been and there was no cleaning of seats every time someone got out. I had rather suspected that even in the UK this wouldn't be likely to happen but the drivers might make a semblance of effort at least. 

The bus from Kyiv outskirts to Zhytomyr was pretty full and stiflingly hot. A couple of passengers wore face coverings but that was all. To be honest it was quite a relief not to have felt obliged to wear mine in such heat and, instead, I spent most of the long journey leaning forward to attempt to make the most of the cooler air flow from a nozzle above my friend's seat. Real chaos ensued on the local buses in Zhytomyr town. Usually jam-packed anyway, they had been restricted to certain numbers prior to May but since the easing of many restrictions in the country, people just clambered aboard and stood close to each other as they always had done. There was an occasional face covering but the majority of people seems to dangle theirs from one ear or not bother at all. It was ruddy hot and I can well understand. Mine stayed in my pocket for the most part. Only on entering shops and offices did we use them and even then, if a brief look around showed that no-one was bothering with them, they were dropped or removed again.

One notable exception was on the trolley buses. Here a small round lady would control the numbers getting on at each stop to ensure that there were the same number as were seats available. Needless to say, I spent most of the journey wondering why on Earth an old chap with a dirty old shopping bag was hanging from a bar above my seat and blocking everyone's passage down the bus when there were plenty of seats empty.

In the streets people busily went about their business or shopping or just chatting in the street much as I reckon they always had done. I started trying to give others a wide berth and to avoid breathing in any air that might have recently been breathed out by a passer-by. That didn't last very long. Old and young, healthy-looking and infirm, men and women, all of us basically seemed to be operating on the basis that there was no such thing as COVID-19 or, if there were, it was no great shakes and, as with each years 'flu, what will be will be.

All so very different to the UK that I had left only a short time earlier. There our behaviour is much more tightly regulated and, whilst there may have been some areas where the number of new cases has been growing rapidly, generally we seem now not to be experiencing anything very different in ill health or deaths than might have been expected in any average year. It is also worth noting that even our very heavy death toll of 46000 is of similar magnitude, proportionately, to the deaths from Asian 'flu in 1957 when we took little precaution other than common sense.

We get angry at the mobs or youths and not-so-young too congregating at holiday beaches or tourist beauty spots and decry their irresponsibility at 'spreading the virus'. Personally I am more angry at the mess they leave behind and lack of good manners so many seem to show when they leave their council estates and carry-out meals in front of massive buy-now-pay-later tvs on their reclining buy-now-pay-later sofas to share the real British countryside. Do we ever read about any of these idiots getting ill or dying? Or, for that matter, those who might be expected to suffer from their proximity, the people who actually live in these lovely places. 

I think we should encourage them all to get the hell out of Britain and soil some foreign country's beaches if they have to behave that way. Make it easier to travel abroad, not more difficult. And let's not stop there. Let's lift all the restrictions and just get back to life as it was at the start of the year, or as close as we can get to that. By all means be selective about who we permit to join us from other places but the true chaos is, in my opinion, going to be in the United Kingdom, not Ukraine from here forward.