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In Odessa, “we thought there would never be anything scarier than the Covid”

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It is a picture that can now be found in the four corners of Ukraine: an entrance to a building, in front of a paved road, where armed soldiers mingle in tense agitation, men leading a constant ballet of cars and vans, and a queue of women and children waiting to receive food or medicine.

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Inside, there is the same now classic vision of premises in which boxes piled from floor to ceiling are filled with basic necessities and medicines. The Russian army is 150 kilometers from Odessa, “Pearl of the Black Sea” with a weight as strategic as symbolic for the Kremlin, and the tension continues to rise in a city which has seen its tourist center transformed into a veritable fortress of barricades and sandbags.

Reflexes acquired two years earlier with the Covid

Despite the feverish bustle at the end of Luther Street, the Monster Corporation – a reference to the animated film Monsters and Co. from Pixar – is not a fragile project of enthusiastic activists who would be overwhelmed by circumstances. The NGO delivers dozens of boxes full of medicine or food every day to hospitals and military units in the city and surrounding region. At the same time, it continues to individually support the Odessites in difficulty.

This very well-oiled machine benefited from the baptism of fire that occurred two years earlier, when the Covid-19 epidemic left Ukrainian power largely helpless. “At the time, we were able to react much more quickly than the government to equip medical personnel with masks, gloves and protective suits”, explains Viktoria Belaya, co-founder of the organization, stuck between cartons of insulin just arrived from Poland and boxes filled with paracetamol. The momentum of solidarity was already there, the impression of urgency too.

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Pharmacies forced to close due to lack of drugs

“When the Covid epidemic started, we thought that there would never be anything scarier and that our life would never be the same again, remembers the volunteer. It taught us to work extremely fast. Today, when Katia gives an order, to bring something, to take something else out, to get medicine, we know we have to hurry. The Covid was a real preparation. »

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Katerina Nojevnikova, precisely, is seated a little further, flanked by two telephones whose bells ring literally every minute – she shows the endless list of calls as proof. “It’s harder than the Covid”, confirms the founder of this organization created in 2014 and which was initially dedicated to helping people displaced by the conflict in the east of the country. If the fight against the coronavirus has regularly been described as a “war”, the much more real one currently taking place in Ukraine poses unprecedented difficulties.

“At the start of the coronavirus, we had major supply problems, but that was quickly resolved. There, it’s the opposite, the situation is getting worse day by day. she explains, worrying about seeing an increasing number of pharmacies closing for lack of medicines. The war also disrupted supply chains. Located in southern Ukraine, Odessa is far from Poland, where most of the humanitarian aid comes from today.

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A steady stream of help

“We lack everything, especially antibiotics”, worries Katerina Nojevnikova between two phone calls, necessarily urgent. “Warehouses are closing, there are no more suppliers, some factories that produce products are now in occupied territory, and people can no longer buy anything from empty pharmacies,” she lists again.

The war complicates everything: a special refrigerator for medical products bought by the charity organization is currently in Mykolaiv, only 130 kilometers from Odessa, at the gates of which the Russian army is today.

The NGO continues, despite everything, to receive a constant stream of aid which it redistributes again and again between the army, the hospitals and the civilian population. The process has not, in the end, changed that much from the days when it was a question of delivering masks, protective suits and oxygen concentrators. But, sighs Viktoria Belaya, “we realize today that in fact, the pandemic was a super era”.

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Economic heart of Ukraine

Founded in 1794 by Empress Catherine II, Odessa, located 500 km south of Kiev, was the third city of the Russian Empire and its second port.

Russian speakers – Ukrainians or Russians – are the majority in this cosmopolitan city, whose population was estimated in 2018 by the UN at 993,800 people.

Odessa port specializes in oil and ferrous metals; two other important ports, Yuzhne (chemicals) and Illichivsk (metals and container traffic), are located in the region.

It is also one of the main transit points cereal exports (barley, maize). Its oil and chemical industries are linked by strategic pipelines to Russia and the EU.

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