Millions of people in Ukraine face a life-threatening winter this year, the World Health Organization has warned, as Russia continues to pound the country’s energy infrastructure while temperatures plummet.
In recent weeks, Russia has targeted energy infrastructure with missile strikes, including water and electricity stations, leaving homes across the country without power as winter sets in – further compounding the health crisis.
“Half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is either damaged or destroyed. This is already having knock-on effects on the health system and on people’s health,” said Hans Henri P Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe.
“This winter will be about survival,” he warned at a news conference in Kyiv, adding that 10 million Ukrainians are currently without power.
Up to three million Ukrainians could leave their homes in search of warmth and safety, the WHO predicted.
Temperatures are predicted to go down to -20 degrees Celsius (-4F) in certain parts of the country.
“The devastating energy crisis, the deepening mental health emergency, constraints on humanitarian access and the risk of viral infections will make this winter a formidable test for the Ukrainian health system and the Ukrainian people,” he said.
“They will face unique health challenges, including respiratory infections such as Covid-19, pneumonia, influenza, and the serious risk of diphtheria and measles in [an] under-vaccinated population,” he added.
The WHO documented more than 700 attacks on health infrastructure since Russia’s invasion began in late February.
Last week, Russia attacked more energy installations in one of its heaviest aerial bombardments since it launched its war on Ukraine.
This has been a recent Russian tactic following battlefield setbacks, and the effect is being felt more acutely as temperatures dip.
Earlier this week, there was renewed shelling at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which no longer produces any power. Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for attacks on the plant, which used to generate more than a quarter of the country’s power.
‘Dark days’ for the health system
Ukraine’s health system is “facing its darkest days in the war so far”, and due to the attacks, hundreds of hospitals and healthcare facilities are “no longer fully operational, lacking fuel, water and electricity to meet basic needs”, Kluge said.
Maternity wards need incubators, blood banks need refrigerators and intensive care beds need ventilators, he explained, adding that “all require energy”.
Kluge expressed concern for 17,000 HIV patients in Donetsk, “who may soon run out of critical antiretroviral drugs that help keep them alive”
Much of Donetsk is under Russian control, and he called for creating a “humanitarian health corridor into all newly regained and occupied areas”.
Ultimately, Kluge said, anything short of stopping the war is a bandaid. He called for the invasion to end “before the health system and the health of the Ukrainian nation are compromised any further”.