On Feb. 13, Olga Skabeyeva and her husband Evgeny Popov, who co-hosts the “60 Minutes” program on state-owned Rossiya-1 TV, interviewed Ekaterina Bondareva, a Ukrainian citizen who was awaiting evacuation from Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak originated.
Bondareva told the interviewers: “We were told that we were being evacuated on the 11th. But unfortunately, eight hours later, in the morning, our country sent a message to the group that we can’t evacuate you ‘for technical reasons’. We are all shocked, because we were all packed and ready to go ... We are asking everyone for help. Please hear us. I'd like to go home...“
Asked about the Ukrainian Embassy in China’s response to the crisis, Bondareva said the embassy had “done all it could to provide for the evacuation,” including organizing buses to transport the evacuees and providing material support. Bondareva said the problem wasn’t with the embassy, but with the Ukrainian government.
Olga Skabeyeva ended the segment by condemning the Ukrainian government.
“Shame on the Ukrainian government,” Skabeyeva said. “Shame! They (the Ukrainian government) need to get their people. Need to give maximum effort.”
On Feb. 18, five days after the “60 Minutes” program aired, Ukraine evacuated its 45 Ukrainian citizens from Wuhan, along with 27 foreign citizens, mostly from Argentina. Photos taken at the airport and posted on the Ukrainian Embassy in China’s website showed passengers holding the flags of Panama, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
The evidence is ambiguous about whether the Ukrainians ever promised an evacuation earlier, although it is clear that the government was working on it, based on the information provided by the Ukrainian embassy in China, as well as the statements and actions of Ukrainian officials at the time.
At least part of the delay may have been to ensure that evacuations wouldn’t spread the virus. In order to judge Ukrainian officials’ response, it is important to review the chronology of events starting on Feb. 10, when the Ukrainian embassy announced evacuation plans, through Feb. 18, when it took place.
On Feb. 10, the Ukrainian Embassy in China’s website had posted plans to evacuate Ukrainian citizens from Hubei province (whose capital city is Wuhan) along with instructions for evacuees. The post gave no date or time for the evacuation, saying that would be announced later.
An article published Feb. 12 on the Ukrainian Russian-language site Today mentioned the Ukrainian Embassy in China’s web posting and claimed the embassy had named Feb. 11 as the evacuation date -- as Bondareva told her Russian interviewers. The Today article reported that the Feb. 11 date later “disappeared” from the embassy’s site.
An article published by the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN on Feb. 10 said Feb. 11 would be “the most optimistic scenario” for evacuation. UNIAN noted that arrangements were under way between the Ukrainian embassy and the Chinese.
On Feb. 12, Today quoted Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, as saying: "As soon as we are 100% sure that the evacuation does not carry the risk of spreading this infection on the territory of Ukraine, we will literally immediately carry out all necessary evacuation actions. This is a matter of days."
On Feb. 14, the same outlet reported that Honcharuk had announced Feb. 18 as the planned evacuation date.
On Feb. 18, the day of the evacuation (scheduled to arrive in Kyiv on Feb. 19), Today published an article quoting Bondareva. She did not repeat the complaints she made on “60 Minutes.” Instead, she spoke about having to pass medical screenings before the flight and noted that Wuhan authorities had forbidden residents to leave home or drive.
The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak was reported in December 2019 in Wuhan. To date, more than 2,000 people have died from the disease.
Russian state media, particularly Skabeyeva and Popov’s talk show “60 Minutes,” have a well-established history of maligning the Ukrainian government. In October 2019, Polygraph.info fact-checked Skabeyeva herself, who had claimed that such disparagement had “never been done on purpose.” Polygraph.info found that claim to be false.
Despite the evacuation, hysteria over the coronavirus continues to plague Ukraine. On Feb. 20, protesters in Novy Sanzhary attempted to block the buses carrying the evacuees to the local sanitarium, where they are to be quarantined for 14 days.