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We are adaptable specialists…

Interview with Svitlana Horbunova-Ruban from the City Council of Kharkiv responsible for health and social protection. Interviewer: Roman Kryvko.

October 17, 2022 - Roman Kryvko Svitlana Horbunova-Ruban - InterviewsUkraineAtWar

Destroyed building in the historical downtown as a consequences of Russian shelling in Kharkiv. August 2022. Photo: Drop of Light / Shutterstock

ROMAN KRYVKO: I will start from February 24th. How did the city take the blow of the invasion in the social sphere?

SVITLANA HORBUNOVA-RUBAN: The principal blow after February 24th was felt in social services. Social workers, along with many other professionals, left Kharkiv. This is because the majority of social workers are women – women with children, with elderly parents. They were motivated by a desire to leave the city, where they face the danger of being shot at. The people’s first departures from the city were driven by fear and misunderstanding of what was happening. Now we have become knowledgeable, we know where the bombs usually hit, where they come from, at what distance. We started to figure out what kind of shell, what kind of rocket, and what kind of weapon is being used by listening to the sounds. We have adapted.

Nevertheless, March and April were very difficult. Not only was it cold, but we realised that in Kharkiv, in addition to those lonely people who have always been served by social workers and territorial centres, that there were many additional people, who either did not want to leave or who could not be picked up. They were left alone, without their families.

About 60 per cent of social workers remained in Kharkiv. But we quickly reopened the territorial centres. At that time, there were difficulties with transport and getting to work. So, we adopted the territorial principle – to work in those centres that can be reached on foot. We began to deliver humanitarian aid and identify those people who have never been on their own before, yet now were alone because they were left without a family.

We have identified almost 30,000 lonely people, whose contact details we know. We work with them, invite them to events, hold concerts, flash mobs, contests.

At the beginning of the war, it was not always possible to evacuate people…

We were not engaged in evacuation, people went on their own. We evacuated only organised children’s institutions where children were without parents or were taken away from their parents for some reason. For example, orphanages and our social centre. But adults, families went on their own. A free evacuation train went to the west of the country.

Has the system of providing various social services been settled now, how do you assess its work?

The system is established, and quite a large number of our employees have returned. Since May, district social protection departments have started to work. They began to make calculations for the provision of various types of financial assistance. Social workers, who serve people at home, have also returned.

What are the most urgent needs that people approach you with?

We have a hotline, people know it, they turn to there. There were two lines, one where you could leave a complaint, a suggestion, or inform us about destroyed houses, broken windows, a lack of water. The other one concerned the provision of humanitarian aid. In March, April and May I had up to a hundred calls on three phone numbers.

What stories struck you the most?

We inspected the houses that were accessible to us, and we transported people who needed urgent treatment, we worked with the ambulances for that. They were very careful to follow our wishes regarding the hospitalisation of people. We placed a large number of people in our nursing homes for the elderly. It was very fast-paced and stressful work. We felt bad for people, there were situations when the street was being shelled and we could not go to provide assistance, pick up a dead person or a living person. At that time, we helped a lot of people to stabilise their condition: some were accommodated, some were treated.

How well does the system, in particular the medical one, cope with the fact that people, including those with illnesses, are brought to Kharkiv from the de-occupied territories?

The medical system has been coping all the time, we have not had a single failure. Even when the power went out, I was very worried how it would be – resuscitation, operating rooms. But the generators were turned on, we survived, everyone was cured and operated on.

In Kharkiv, Saltivka, Zhuky (Zhukovsky’s village – editor’s note), Piatykhatky, we have almost 33,000 residents whose houses were destroyed and who also have the status of internally displaced persons. And we resettle them all, provide them with assistance, receive humanitarian aid for them – bed linen, hygiene products, pillows, blankets, pots, power banks, rechargeable flashlights.

There is a problem with space. We were approached by volunteers about making a transit base so that if we enter during the curfew, a person could be accommodated, spend the night, and we would then take them further. We gave an address, they brought us people, and they still live there, because the volunteers said: “go, you will live there until the end of the war.”

What are the main tasks now, socially and medically?

Despite the fact that the number of personnel who have returned and are working is no higher than 60 to 65 per cent in social departments and territorial centres, and that we simply do not have enough medical personnel, we perform all functional duties. We are adaptable specialists.

Is preparation for the heating season an important issue for medical institutions?

It is very important. We are getting ready. Heating in the medical institutions of Kharkiv is 91 per cent ready, social institutions are 100 per cent ready. The problem with medical institutions is that there is such damage that we have doubts they can work in winter. We have seven such institutions that we are working on now and we want to understand whether they will work into winter or if we will suspend their operations because we will not be able to use them. There are 69 institutions in total. But each one is preparing for winter, and our boiler houses are ready. We have purchased 20 tons of coal, we are closing the windows – 362 windows are currently broken in the medical institutions.

And Covid is an issue again?

There is Covid, but not on the same scale as it was in the last wave. Compared to the autumn wave, the numbers are completely incomparable and significantly smaller. And the symptoms are much milder. This virus will die out sooner or later. A big request to our people: if you are sick, if you have a sore throat, a hoarse voice, a runny nose, you need to take a test and check that it is not Covid.

What is the availability of medicines like in Kharkiv institutions?

We have almost everything. We have received quite a significant amount of humanitarian aid, and more is still coming. Our pharmacy network is also working actively and they are trying to import the medicines that are needed.

Regarding the medical workers who in one way or another suffered the consequences of the Russian aggression – was anyone wounded, or is anyone, perhaps, unfortunately, no longer with us?

Like all people in Kharkiv, they were left without houses, without apartments. We had employees who lived in Tsyrkuny (a village not far from Kharkiv to the north, heavily damaged by Russian shelling – editor’s note) and came to work. They had to stay there because they could not leave once the occupiers came. And we were looking for them. There was no communication because the phones were taken away. And then, when they came out to work, we were horrified looking at them, because they were in the cellar for two weeks. We treated them, rehabilitated them. Some have injuries from the shelling. Many people have, believe me, because I was also hit.

I did not mention the volunteers. We cooperate with a large number of volunteers, but our cooperation works according to the framework that we know which volunteers specialise in what, what kind of help they can provide. When I have a specific person with a specific request – whether it is a wheelchair, a walker, a dry closet, or some medicines that could not be found in Kharkiv, clothes, shoes – I know which volunteers to contact, and they always help.

Who should people contact if they are in need?

Call the hotline, number 1562.

Svitlana Horbunova-Ruban is the Deputy Head of Kharkiv City Council responsible for health and social protection.

Roman Kryvko is a radio journalist from Kharkiv

This article is published in the framework of the “Bohdan Osadchuk Media Platform for Journalists from Ukraine” co-financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation as part of the RITA – “Region in Transition” Program implemented by the Education for Democracy Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation. 

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