Ukraine minister joins China evacuees after quarantine clashes

Dmytro GORSHKOV
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Security has been beefed up in Novi Sanzhary where evacuees from coronavirus-hit China are being quarantined

Ukraine's health minister volunteered to spend two weeks in quarantine as authorities looked to calm panic Friday after protesters attacked buses carrying evacuees from coronavirus-hit China.

On Thursday, protesters blocked roads and hurled stones at vehicles carrying 72 people evacuated from China and bound for a medical facility in the town of Novi Sanzhary in the central Poltava region.

Protesters said they feared the evacuees carried the virus and posed a threat to their community.

Riot police with armoured vehicles moved in to disperse the protesters, sparking clashes that injured nine policemen and one civilian.

Authorities called for calm, with senior officials rushing to the town and President Volodymyr Zelensky urging solidarity.

In a bid to allay fears, Health Minister Zoryana Skaletska said she would be joining the evacuees, who include 45 Ukrainians and 27 foreigners, in quarantine.

"I will spend the next 14 days with them, in the same premises, under the same conditions," she said.

"Today we agreed on the conditions of my stay and I was sent to the observation zone," Skaletska said on Facebook later in the day.

Zelensky said "unprecedented" measures had been taken to prevent the spread of the virus across Ukraine.

He also urged Ukrainians to refrain from staging protests.

"We constantly say that Ukraine is Europe. But yesterday in some episodes, it seemed that we are Europe of the Middle Ages," Zelensky said.

"Let's not forget that we are all human beings," he said.

- Security beefed up -

Ukraine's Prime Minister Oleksiy Goncharuk, who visited the site of clashes late Thursday, called the incident "provocation" and a part of an "information war" against the country.

He did not elaborate, but previously Ukraine's security service said they uncovered a distribution of fake news about coronavirus cases in Ukraine in a newsletter, while Ukrainian TV channels cited locals in Novi Sanzhary as saying they received alarming text messages.

"There is no reason to panic," Goncharuk said.

The interior ministry said it had beefed up security in the town of 10,000 people, with some 400 police on patrol around the medical facility where the evacuees would be under quarantine.

"All of those who arrived yesterday from China, including doctors, are under observation. The situation in Novi Sanzhary now is calm," the ministry said in a statement on Friday.

Police said criminal investigations had been launched after Thursday's clashes.

Protesters had said the evacuees should be quarantined away from populated areas, instead of in a facility in their community.

Svitlana Ulynets said her home was only 50 metres (yards) from the facility.

"I live next door, and no one's asked me about anything. Should I leave? I have a child at home. Do you really think I could support this?" she said at the demonstration.

Ukraine has not confirmed any cases of the new coronavirus, which has killed more than 2,200 people and infected over 75,000 in China and 1,100 abroad.

- Pet evacuation -

Amid panic and clashes, Zelensky has also promised to extricate a young woman who refused to board an evacuation flight out of virus-hit Chinese Wuhan province without her small dog.

Anastasiya Zinchenko, 22, was due to fly out Thursday along with other evacuees, but decided to stay when was told she could not take her Pomeranian dog Michelle on board because she lacked the necessary papers.

"We won’t leave you there. We will certainly... find a way to get you back," Zelensky told her in a phone call Zinchenko posted on Instagram that was confirmed by the presidency.

Many Ukrainians took to social media to say they were ashamed of their compatriots' behaviour.

"The sick ones are not those who came back... but those who are on the streets with stones," journalist Olga Tanasiichuk wrote on Facebook.

In order to mend the situation, some Ukrainians even brought fruit and other food to the entrance of the hospital, local journalists reported.