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Ukraine: Covid-19 Rules Blocked Access to Pensions

Restrictions That Pushed People into Poverty Lifted, But More Reform Needed

A soldier in a face mask checks the temperature of an older woman at a checkpoint in Mayorsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Monday, March 16, 2020. © 2020 APTN via AP

Update (August 3, 2020): Despite a decree by the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers announcing that as of August 1, 2020 self-isolation requirements would be lifted for all those crossing into government-controlled territory in the east, groups working on the ground at the crossing point said on August 3, 2020 that people crossing were still forced to download the “Act at Home” app and self-isolate for 14 days.

A regional division of the Ukraine State Border Guard service confirmed on its Facebook page that restrictions would remain in place after August 1, 2020. However, it is unclear how and why the Cabinet of Ministers decision was overruled.

“Ukraine’s backtracking on its promise to lift Covid-19 travel restrictions is unacceptable, particularly in light of evidence that pensioners living on the non-government side, most of whom have been unable to access their pensions since March, are being pushed into poverty as a result,” said Laura Mills, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.  “The Ukrainian government should find alternative ways to allow people to safely cross the line of contact during the pandemic, particularly when they are simply attempting to access banking and other services that are within several hundred meters of the Ukrainian government checkpoints.”

(Kyiv) – Ukraine has lifted travel restrictions on residents of non-government areas in the east that had largely prevented them from accessing their pensions and pushed them further into poverty, Human Rights Watch said today. The restrictions, imposed in March 2020 in response to Covid-19, meant that for over four months, pensioners had to cut back dramatically on food, medication, and necessary hygiene products.

Lifting the restrictions was an important step. However, the Ukrainian government did not amend other rules that impose undue hardship on older people, who must still cross into government-held territory every 60 days to collect their pensions rather than being allowed to appoint an authorized representative to receive it for them. Significant Covid-related travel restrictions also remain in place on the non-government side.

“The pandemic-related restrictions made a bad situation worse, almost completely cutting off access to pensions and leaving many older people struggling to pay for even basic provisions,” said Laura Mills, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Lifting the travel restrictions should hopefully give pensioners some relief, but the pandemic should push the Ukrainian government to urgently find permanent solutions so pensioners can get their pensions more easily.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 older people, almost all of whom had not been able to collect the pensions to which they are entitled since March. They described an increasingly dire economic situation. A 55-year-old man who uses a wheelchair and incontinence pads said that he could no longer afford the pads and had been cutting up the ones he had left into smaller pieces to make them last. Another man said that he and his mother had both significantly reduced their diabetes medication, and that his mother had reduced her intake of painkillers for dry gangrene in her foot. Most said they had given up meat and were eating less because of their decreased income.

“I shake from hunger when I walk,” said a 68-year-old woman who lives near Donetsk. “Before, I could buy sausage, a little bit of meat – now I can’t, there’s not enough money. I eat only soup and bread.”

In late 2014, the Ukrainian government stopped funding government services in the areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed armed groups. Since then, it has required people who live in these areas to register as displaced persons and cross into government-controlled areas every two months to remain eligible for their pensions, a policy that is discriminatory. In the months leading up to the lockdown, nearly 1.3 million people crossed the line of contact each month, an estimated 80 percent of them older people.

But the crossing points slammed shut with little notice in March as both sides rushed to react to Covid-19. Ukraine reopened its checkpoints on June 10, but restrictions were put in place on both sides to limit the spread of the virus. Ukraine required people entering from non-government-controlled areas to download the “Act at Home” app, which monitors compliance with 14-day self-isolation requirements, despite the fact that many people in Ukraine, particularly older people, do not own a smartphone.

On July 30, Ukraine said it was lifting the self-isolation requirements, though the government said it could re-impose them if necessary. Significant restrictions are still in place in areas of the Donetsk region not under government control, where the de facto authorities admit a restricted number of people from lists prepared in advance, and require a 14-day quarantine in medical facilities upon return. No restrictions appear to be in place for those crossing into areas of the Luhansk region not under government control.

The Ukrainian government has the right to restrict freedom of movement during the pandemic, including imposing quarantine or isolation requirements where necessary and proportionate to protect public health. The authorities in areas not currently under government control may take similar measures. However, the restrictions imposed from March to August 1 created an undue burden on pensioners, who had a growing need to access these payments and other vital provisions.

Prior to the pandemic, while the journey across the conflict line was sometimes arduous, most pensioners could cross, access their pensions at banking services frequently located within several hundred meters of the Ukrainian government checkpoint, and return in less than one day. But because of the Covid-19 self-isolation restrictions, people without relatives or homes on the government-controlled side had to pay for accommodation to comply with the 14-day self-isolation rule, which many could not afford. The result was a reduction from 1.2 million in June 2019 to 14, 498 in June 2020 in the number of monthly crossings in eastern Ukraine.

“By May, more and more people were asking us about crossing, implying that money was already running out or close to it,” said Iuliia Tralo, legal coordinator for Right to Protection, a Ukrainian group that has led strategic litigation and advocacy for the rights of pensioners in the conflict. “It’s one thing [for pensioners] to come and go in 1 day but staying for 14 days means spending the entire pension that they have accumulated in these months.”

Those who were desperate still attempted to cross. A 62-year-old man from Donetsk region said that he couldn’t access the app when he tried to cross in June because he doesn’t have a smartphone. He and 30 other people were stuck for 3 days in the heavily mined “gray zone” between the warring parties, still the scene of active fighting. They were eventually allowed to quarantine in a medical facility.

Others traveled to the checkpoints hoping they would not have to formally cross. But when a 67-year-old man tried to get medicine his wife needed after a relative brought it to the crossing, border guards would not let him through or facilitate a handover unless he downloaded the app and underwent the 14-day self-isolation in government-controlled territory.

“I even offered them 1,000 hryvnia (approximately US$36)” to let the medicine through, he said. “What else was I supposed to do, let my wife die?... I nearly cried.”

Without access to their pensions, interviewees survived thanks to help from neighbors and friends, as well as “social welfare payments” that authorities in non-government-controlled areas give people of pension age. All but three interviewees received these payments, but said they are smaller than their Ukrainian pensions and that many goods are more expensive in non-government territories, particularly food.

Lack of access to those areas makes this difficult to confirm. However, a 2017 report by Transparency International and other groups found that due to trade restrictions, bribery, and smuggling, prices in non-government areas were significantly higher than in other parts of Ukraine, particularly for meat and fresh produce.

Covid-19 further underscores the need to make pension payments more accessible to older people, thousands of whom struggled to access their pensions before the pandemic due to limited mobility and other issues. Ukraine should pass draft law 2083-d, which would delink pension eligibility from displaced person status and reduce the frequency with which pensioners have to visit government-controlled territory. It should also introduce remote, online procedures that would make it easier for pensioners to access their pensions via an appointed representative. Because older people are at higher risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19, these provisions to limit the frequency of travel across the line of contact would also help protect them from the virus during the pandemic.

De-facto authorities in Donetsk should remove blanket travel restrictions, particularly for people attempting to access their pensions, Human Rights Watch said. In the event that Ukrainian authorities would need to consider re-imposing travel restrictions due the pandemic, they should accommodate people who are simply trying to access banking services several hundred meters or less from the government-controlled checkpoints, using more proportionate measures such as setting caps on the number of people in any given space, requiring safe social distancing, and requiring face coverings. Ukrainian authorities should act now to create these accommodations, so that people will not have to suffer in case travel restrictions are re-imposed, Human Rights Watch said. 

While governments have the right to restrict movement during the pandemic, these restrictions should never result in denial of access to goods, medicines, health care, and social services, especially for vulnerable groups such as older people.

“During the pandemic, pensioners living in the conflict zone have struggled tremendously trying to pay for basic provisions,” Mills said. “Both sides should ensure that these people have continued access to their funds, which they desperately need.”

For detailed accounts, please see below.

Between June 29 and July 16, Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 pensioners between the ages of 51 and 87 who live in non-government-controlled territory, and 2 relatives in additional cases where poor connectivity or other issues made it impossible to speak directly with pensioners. In all but two cases, these people had not accessed their Ukrainian pension since February or March. Three people attempted crossing the line of contact to retrieve their pensions, as well as to carry out other vital purchases, but were forced to quarantine or self-isolate in government-controlled territory for 14 days. Human Rights Watch identified interviewees with help from Right to Protection, a Ukrainian group working on strategic litigation and advocacy for pensioners.


People stand near an ATM, located near the contact line between Russia-backed armed groups and Ukrainian troops in Mayorsk, Ukraine. Older persons in non-government controlled areas have to cross the line to collect their pensions in person, effectively stripping away pensions from those who are immobile. July 4, 2019.  © 2019 REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Some of the interviewees who previously worked in mining and other heavy industries are receiving a pension despite being younger than 60, the current pension age for men in Ukraine.

This is because according to Ukrainian law, people who work in hazardous professions are eligible to start receiving pensions earlier.

Two interviewees had access to their Ukrainian pensions via a cash conversion scheme organized by unregistered “companies.” These companies require the pensioner to transfer the pension amount to a bank account they have in Russia or Ukraine, and then give the pensioner cash in rubles. Human Rights Watch called two of these companies to verify the procedure. Pensioners can use these services only if they had previously registered in-person for online banking in Ukraine. The companies take 8 to 10 percent in service fees, and often require pensioners to hand over significant personal information, including bank card and pin code information. For these reasons, most pensioners said they could not or were reluctant to use these services.

In 2015, the de facto authorities in non-government-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk began issuing payments to people of pension age, called “social welfare payments,” though in all the cases Human Rights Watch documented these payments were lower than people’s Ukrainian pensions. Currently, the minimum payment in both Donetsk and Luhansk regions is 4,800 rubles ($67).

All of the older people interviewed live in areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are not under government control. They are identified using pseudonyms for their protection.

Petr P.

“Petr P.,” 55, who lives in Rovenki in Luhansk region, uses a wheelchair because of a spinal injury he sustained while working as a miner. He is entitled to a Ukrainian pension of 4,600 hryvnia ($165) per month. Since Covid-19 travel restrictions went into effect, he and his wife live on the 4,800 rubles ($67) that they each receive from the de-facto authorities in Luhansk. In recent months, they have also received some humanitarian aid, both food and hygiene products such as soap, from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Because Petr P. cannot access his Ukrainian pension, he has had to cut back on medications, buying ones that he believes are less effective for his health conditions, as well as other products like incontinence pads.

“A friend called and said they had a packet of diapers [incontinence pads], and asked if I needed them, he somehow got it through the church,” he said. “We cut them up into smaller pieces so that they last longer … I make them smaller and they hold together with tape. I only received one packet [since the start of lockdown], but they are already running out.”

Vitalii N.

Before the lockdown, “Vitalii N.,” 65, who lives in Luhansk, received a Ukrainian pension of 5,900 hryvnia ($213) each month, as well as payments from the de facto authorities of 11,500 rubles ($161). He said that the money allows him to care for his 92-year-old mother, who has a mobility disability and has been unable to cross into government-controlled territory to retrieve her pension since the start of the conflict. However, since the beginning of the pandemic-related travel restrictions, Vitalii N. had been unable to access his pension and therefore had to reduce expenditures, first and foremost on diabetes medication for himself and his mother.

Vitalii N. said:

If before I took 2,500 milligrams [of Diabeton, a diabetes medication] per day, now I take 1,500 milligrams per day and I have to exercise more in order to regulate my sugar levels. I walk five kilometers a day and thanks to that I lower my sugar levels. I also eat less. My mother [who also has reduced her diabetes medication] mostly has to regulate [her sugar levels] by eating less. Of course it’s an ordeal, but we can’t do anything else.

His mother also has gangrene in one leg as a result of her diabetes and has had to reduce her painkiller intake by 15 to 20 percent to save money. Vitalii N. said he feared that it was this reduction that led to his mother’s recent mini stroke, because pain tended to make her more irritable and to raise her blood pressure.

On July 5, Vitalii N. crossed into government-controlled territory. At the time of the interview, he was carrying out his 14-day self-isolation at a summer cottage the family owns there. Vitalii N. said he had to hire a full-time caretaker to look after his mother while he was away.

Mykhailo N.

“Mykhailo N.,” 62, from Khartsyzsk, a town in Donetsk region, had been unable to access his pension or savings since February. On June 24, he tried to cross into government-controlled territory at the Novotroitskaya checkpoint, shortly after both sides announced its reopening. He said he was desperate without his monthly pension of 2,000 hryvnia ($73) and had been able to survive only with the help of friends. While he had some savings from a short-term job at a hotel in Sweden late last year, he was unable to access that money from non-government-controlled areas. While these areas have a banking system, banks there are almost completely cut off from other parts of the world.

“I decided to go because I needed to pay for [utilities] and food,” he said. “I had no money; I didn’t know what else to do. I planned to go only for one day – that’s what I did before. I went back and forth [from government-controlled territory] in one day, by evening I was already home.”

But because he didn’t own a cellphone, he was unable to download the “Act at Home” app. As a result, Ukrainian officials would not let him cross, and when he tried to turn around, the Russian-backed armed groups would not let him back into areas under their control. Together with several dozen other people, he spent three days in the so-called “gray zone” that separates the two warring parties. Eventually, they were allowed into government-controlled territory, on the condition that they would undergo quarantine in a medical facility.

He was allowed out four days later, after receiving a negative PCR test result for the novel coronavirus, but he is unable to return to non-government-controlled territory. He said he applied to be placed on an entry list but has received no response. Because he has nowhere else to go, he has been staying in a monastery, which provides him with free meals and board, since early July.

Anastasiiа P.

“Anastasiia P.,” 68, lives alone in a village just outside the city of Donetsk. Before the lockdown, she traveled to Ukrainian government-controlled areas every 2 months to retrieve her pension of 2,000 hryvnia ($73), which supplemented payments from the local authorities of 4,800 rubles ($67). Together, she said, they were just enough to live on. Since the lockdown, she has had to survive on the 4,800-ruble payment alone, but that it is not enough to buy anything but the most basic produce.

“This is money so that we don’t die of hunger – it’s enough for bread, salt, potatoes, but it’s not enough for anything else,” she said. “I shake from hunger when I walk. Before I could buy sausage, a little bit of meat – now I can’t, there’s not enough money. I eat only soup and bread – how can you eat only soup and not shake [when you walk]?”

Anastasiia P. said she had stopped buying medications for several chronic illnesses several years ago because she couldn’t afford them. She lives on a plot of land too small to grow produce like many of her neighbors, who have helped her since the lockdown, giving her potatoes, oats, sunflower oil, and eggs.

Nykolai O.

“Nykolai O.,” 57, a former police officer from the city of Donetsk, last crossed the line of contact to pick up his Ukrainian pension of 5,000 hryvnia ($181) in March. Since the lockdown began, he has been surviving on the 4,800-ruble ($67) monthly payment from the de facto authorities. He said he had started eating less and could no longer afford meat. He said he was unable to afford medical treatment for a spinal injury that was expected to cost around 9,000 hryvnia ($326).

“Things have gotten a lot worse since the quarantine,” he said. “Before you could go and buy some meat in [the government-controlled city of] Volnovakha. It’s cheaper there. Now my garden is the only thing that saves me. At least I can harvest some zucchini.”

Older people lining up at bank machines in government-controlled areas of Ukraine, after crossing the Stanytsia Luhanska checkpoint, to pick up their pensions. November 2, 2018. Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine. © 2018 Martyn Aim/Corbis via Getty Images

Liudmyla S.

“Liudmyla S.,” 65, returned to her village in Luhansk region on February 28 after spending the winter caring for her son, who has a disability and lives in government-controlled territory. At that time, the only regular income she was receiving was her Ukrainian pension of 2,100 hryvnia ($76). The de facto authorities had stopped payments to her because of her long absence. When the lockdown began, she was left without any income whatsoever, and relied on help from neighbors.

Liudmyla S.’s daughter, who also lives in non-government-controlled territory and typically visits once a month to bring her food, clothes, medicine, and other necessary items, could not travel to see her in March and April, when the de facto authorities closed down entire cities where there were confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Liudmyla S. said:

She didn’t come for two months; they wouldn’t let them through – neither buses nor cars. During that time, I would leave a key on the doorstep – when I went to bed I never knew whether I’d wake up in the morning, and I thought at least they won’t have to break down the door if I die.

After the first month of the lockdown, Liudmyla S. has been able to access payments from the local authorities of 4,800 rubles ($67) per month. Thanks to summer produce from her garden and help from her daughter, she now has food.

Stepan A.

“Stepan A.,” 67, who lives in the city of Luhansk, crossed the line of contact on June 29 to pick up blood pressure medication for his wife that isn’t sold in non-government-controlled areas. Stepan A. had hoped he might not have to undergo self-isolation, as he did not plan to cross far into government-held territory. A relative had entrusted the medication to a bus driver picking people up at a parking lot that was within a few hundred meters from the last Ukrainian government checkpoint. But Ukrainian officials would not let him pass through, or help facilitate a handover, unless Stepan A. downloaded the “Act at Home” app and underwent 14 days of self-isolation in government-controlled territory.

“It took me a long time to get through. The border guards said I had an outdated phone. Then the phone couldn’t pick up a signal,” he said, adding that it had taken at least three hours to download the app at the crossing point. “I even asked them if they could go and get the medication from the bus driver, or ask the driver to come here, I’ll take the pills and go home. I even offered them 1,000 hryvnia ($36). What else was I supposed to do, let my wife die?... I nearly cried.”

Stepan A. was ultimately able to download the “Act at Home” app and spent his 14 days of self-isolation on the Ukrainian government side with relatives. Prior to crossing, neither Stepan A. nor his wife had been able to get their Ukrainian pensions since March. Together they receive around 8,000 hryvnia ($290) per month. From de facto authorities, they receive 15,000 rubles ($210). They are now struggling to pay for some medications, which before the lockdown accounted for around 30 percent of their expenditures. He said the lockdown has had a particularly negative effect on his wife, who has one kidney and several other chronic diseases, and requires regular medical treatment that she previously obtained in government-controlled territory.

Tatiana E.

“Tatiana E.,” 87, lives in a small village near Luhansk. Before the Covid-19 travel restrictions, she traveled every other month to pick up her pension of 5,000 hryvnia ($181) in government-controlled territory. Because the only crossing in Luhansk region requires pensioners to walk several kilometers, these were arduous crossings for Tatiana E. under any circumstances, and she paid to be taken across in a hand-driven cart: “Sometimes you have to stand for six hours. I’m almost 90 years old, what kind of standing can I do? I pay for all of it – it comes to a decent sum.”

Without access to her pension, Tatiana E. survives on the 4,800-ruble ($67) monthly payment from the de facto authorities. While she has struggled to pay for food and other basic necessities, she does not think she will be able to cross the line of contact any time soon due to the Covid-19 isolation requirements and because her mobility was even further reduced after she broke her leg in May.

“What the LPR [Luhansk People’s Republic, the de facto authorities in Luhansk region] give us is enough for bread,” she said. “After I pay for utilities – that’s electricity, water, and gas – and medicine, I have 2,000 rubles ($28) left for food, I buy only bread and enough for soup. I don’t eat meat.”

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