KIEV, Ukraine – In Ukraine, swine flu is causing electoral fever.
In a hard-fought presidential campaign, critics of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko accuse her of stirring up panic to grab the spotlight from rivals by closing all schools and banning mass gatherings to combat what experts say is a relatively moderate outbreak of the disease.
The arrival of the virus has set off a cycle of one-upmanship and recrimination among leading politicians that has spread fear, sidelined minor presidential candidates, and, health officials say, caused wasteful hoarding by scared citizens of precious medical supplies.
“This is very dangerous,” said Igor Shkrobanets, chief of the local health ministry in the western region of Chernivtsi, one of the nine regions where a partial quarantine has been imposed. “One or another politician will gain from this situation, but the doctors and their patients certainly will not.”
The charismatic Tymoshenko announced the arrival of a swine flu epidemic on Oct. 30, when there was only a single confirmed case in Ukraine, and she immediately announced the government would impose some of Europe’s strictest measures against the virus.
The health ministry has registered around 1.4 million cases of flu and respiratory illness since the start of the outbreak; the World Health Organization suspects most are swine flu, an infection rate it says is in line with neighboring countries such as Russia and Poland.
But in Ukraine, all schools and universities were closed for three weeks and all mass gatherings, including campaign rallies heading into the January 17 presidential contest, have been banned.
Since then, Tymoshenko has made daily television addresses on the state of infection, while criticizing her political rivals for hindering her efforts to stop it.
Her standing in the polls has improved dramatically, bringing her to within 3 percent of the front-runner, Party of Regions chief Viktor Yanukovich.
In a populist response to Tymoshenko, Yanukovich has pledged to spend his own campaign fund on flu medicine and 20 million surgical masks that he will hand out for free to provincial hospitals.
Yanukovich, whose presidential bid five years ago was backed by Russia’s then-President Vladimir Putin, had led her by nearly 15 percent in some polls at the end of October. His victory would in effect overturn the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which swept a pro-Western government to power on the back of widespread protests.
“There is a saying in Ukraine: The active idiot is better than the lazy philosopher. And it now looks like people will vote for Tymoshenko simply because she is taking action on this flu issue, which has completely dominated public discussion,” said political analyst Volodymyr Tsybulko. “No one much cares that Tymoshenko was the one who created the issue she is acting upon.”
Regardless of the politics, health officials say political wrangling over the epidemic is causing public fears that are not justified by its scale. The World Health Organization, which sent a mission to Kiev on Nov. 2 at the urgent request of Tymoshenko’s health minister, concluded Friday that “the numbers of severe cases do not appear to be excessive when compared to the experience of other countries.”