Ukraine’s effort to quarantine more than 70 people evacuated from China over the new virus outbreak plunged into chaos Thursday as local residents opposing the move hurled stones at the evacuees and engaged in violent clashes with police.
Officials deplored the violence and the country’s health minister pledged to share evacuees’ quarantine for two weeks in a bid to reassure protesters who fear they’ll be infected.
Buses carrying evacuees were finally able to reach the designated place of quarantine after hours of clashes. The masked evacuees, exhausted by the long journey, were peeking through bus windows as they drove slowly under a heavy police escort.
Stones shattered a window in one of the buses, but the evacuees appeared unhurt.
Among the evacuees was Israeli Tomer Zvulun, who was given permission to leave the virus stricken Hubei province in China on Wednesday after Israeli diplomats intervened on his behalf, Nationals from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Panama and other countries were also on the plane, along with 45 Ukrainians.
Since the early morning, several hundred residents of the village of Novi Sanzhary in Ukraine’s central Poltava region had cut the road to a sanitarium intended to host the evacuees, fearing they could become infected. Demonstrators, some of whom appeared drunk, put up road blocks, burned tires and clashed with riot police who moved to clear access. One protester tried to ram police lines with his car.
Nine police and one civilian were hospitalized, the regional police said in a statement.
More than 10 protesters were detained, and Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov personally visited the site of the protests to try to calm the crowd down.
Avakov urged the protesters “not to fall for provocations and be understanding of the necessity for these temporary measures.”
“The situation is rather heated,” Poltava regional police spokesman Yuri Sulayev said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky weighed in, saying the protests showed “not the best side of our character.” He tried to reassure people that the quarantined evacuees wouldn’t pose any danger to local residents.
In a statement published on his Facebook page, Zelensky said the people evacuated from China are healthy and will live in a closed medical center run by the National Guard in the village as a precaution.
“In the next two weeks it will probably be the most guarded facility in the country,” Zelensky said.
Ukraine’s Health Minister Zoryana Skaletska said she would join the evacuees in quarantine for two weeks to help assuage villagers’ concerns. She urged residents to show sympathy and support for the evacuees and emphasized that the quarantine facility is in full conformity with international standards.
“I was shocked by panic, rejection, negative feelings and aggression,” she said. “It was even a greater shock for the people who were evacuated from China.”
But municipal legislators in the village vowed to continue opposing the evacuation, saying that the sanitarium’s sewage system is linked to the one in the village and ends up in a nearby wastewater facility.
“We can’t allow putting the health and life of local residents at risk, and demand that top officials take urgent moves to prevent people from China from being put here,” they said in a statement.
Amid the clashes between local residents and police, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk said he will immediately fly to the site to personally oversee things.
In the early hours of Thursday, a plane carrying the 72 evacuees took off from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak that has infected more than 75,000 people worldwide and killed over 2,100.
The plane stopped in Kazakhstan to drop off Kazakh passengers. Later, it sought to land in Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine, but could not due to bad weather conditions.
Instead it flew to Kyiv to refuel, and eventually arrived in Kharkiv.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said that Zvulun would spend at least 14 days in quarantine in Ukraine before being allowed to return to Israel. According to Ukrainian officials, the 14-day clock will reset if any of the group is found to have the virus, once that person is moved to isolation.
Israel said Zvulun’s the evacuation was made possible by “contacts made between Israel’s embassy in Beijing and Ukraine’s embassy in the city, as well as the help of the Israeli embassy in Ukraine.
Zvulun, one of a handful of Israelis known to have been visiting or living in the province, was staying a rural village in the Hubei province where he was interested in studying Kung Fu, according to the Foreign Ministry.
The ministry said it was still working on extracting a second Israeli from the area.
Zvulun told Israel’s Channel 12 news that he had contacted the embassy in Beijing two weeks ago, once it became clear that the quarantine over the area would not be lifted anytime soon.
Argentina’s Foreign Ministry in a statement thanked Ukraine for its “generosity” and China for its collaboration.
Novi Sanzhary is one of four places in Ukraine slated to host those under quarantine, according to the Kyiv Post.
Header: Ukrainian riot police prepare to push back protesters, who planned to stop buses carrying passengers evacuated from the Chinese city of Wuhan, outside Novi Sarzhany, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. Several hundred residents in Ukraine’s Poltava region protested to stop officials from quarantining the evacuees in their village because they feared becoming infected. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)