“People don’t guess that a modern-day Auschwitz is nearby.” A deep and touching photo essay documenting the countless individuals affected by the huge tuberculosis crisis currently plaguing Eastern Ukraine.
Photographs and text by Maxim Dondyuk
I started to investigate the problem of tuberculosis in Ukraine in December 2010. At the time, I knew nothing about the subject; I only had the same stereotypes as other people.
The first region I went to was Donbas, Eastern Ukraine. There, I was greatly influenced by what I saw.
One of the first patients I photographed was suffering from gastrointestinal tuberculosis. He was lying naked on a hospital bed and staring at the ceiling. A week later, I was with him in the last hours of his life. He couldn’t move or talk. His body was like a skeleton covered with skin. He clutched a cross to his chest and prayed. Afterwards, I met his wife, and she told me how he walked around the house with a torn stomach and intestines dragging across the floor. Because the ambulance refused to transfer him to a hospital (perhaps out of fear of contagion), they had to call a taxi.
At the time I made this project—2010-2012—Ukraine had the second-highest burden of tuberculosis in Europe, behind only to Russia. Just 50 percent of TB patients recover from their illness. Each year back then, 40,000 new TB patients were registered officially for the first time, and then 10,000 of them died. Every hour, four new cases of tuberculosis were recorded, and each hour, one such patient died.
Of course, the hospitals were in terrible condition. Medical equipment was either out of date or absent altogether. The government did nothing to stop the problem, even if there was some help from volunteer organizations. Patients with drug-resistant tuberculosis had to use public transport to get medications and food. Those who had no money just died in their beds.
In addition, the prisons of the country have become a hotbed of TB. The incidence of TB in the country’s prisons is about 50 times higher than among the civilian population. The mortality rate is 30 times higher. Many prisons, in order to keep their mortality figures at a reasonable rate, release “pardoned” convicts with serious health conditions. These ex-convicts dissolve amidst the general population without medical supervision and quietly die.
Children’s TB is also a very big problem: over the past decade, the number of deceased children has increased three times. It has become a norm that young children are infected with various persistent forms of TB. The severity of the disease’s outbreak among children continues to progress today. This is not only because of a lack of attention by the state but also due to indifference by the parents. Many of them believe that their child is fully protected, and that vaccination can only hurt him or her. Every year, during annual health checks, about 200,000 juveniles suffering from a latent form of TB are revealed.
People don’t guess that a modern-day Auschwitz is nearly in their midst. While politicians are playing politics, people are dying of tuberculosis. They lie, hopelessly, in hospitals without drugs or adequate nutrition or proper care. The epidemic of TB has truly become one of Ukraine’s national problems.
And today, there is even a further danger of TB’s expansion. Because of the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the number of refugees from Crimea and Donbass has reached over 1.2 million people. During the crisis, thousands of tuberculosis patients from the East were left without treatment. Many prisoners were released and taken to the separatists’ pro-Russian army. Because of the lack of medical treatment—in addition to the devastation and poverty caused by war—the severity of the TB epidemic increases day by day in the east of Ukraine. Continue reading.