Berlin-based video journalist Mstyslav Chernov had heard from longtime sources in Ukraine that hospitals in the western part of the country were overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, even though the official nationwide numbers did not indicate a coronavirus emergency. He knew the health system in Ukraine was nearing collapse after six years of war with Russian-backed separatists, and a new president who inherited health reforms that had slashed government subsidies, leaving medics underpaid and without enough equipment.
Air travel was not an option, so Chernov drove 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) from Germany to Ukraine. Once he arrived, he continued reaching out to medical workers to find a way to show the dire conditions. Local journalists in Ukraine kept telling him it was impossible – the medics and the government would never allow it.
Eventually, Chernov gained the trust of several medics who allowed him and Maloletka to visit their hospitals and document the conditions. Doctors were making their own protective gear out of plastic bags. Many medics were sick. Others had stopped working because the conditions were dangerous and they were not making enough money: ICU doctors in Ukraine make $148 to $174 a month, while nurses get $111. At one hospital, a pathologist who wore a handmade protective suit was doing autopsies outside the hospital because of poor indoor air and water filtration in the morgue. Another hospital had no ventilators.
Chernov and Maloletka worked together to ensure they had the equipment and gear they needed to work safely inside the hospitals. The video and photos the produced were extremely powerful and personal. They showed the shortage of medical and protective gear for the workers – as well as the medics’ humanity and determination to treat desperately ill patients despite the lack of basic supplies.
To accompany the visuals, Chernov worked with Belarus-based reporter Yuras Karmanau, who frequently reports on Ukraine, and Moscow-based Volodya Isachenkov to write a compelling story that also put the struggling health system in context with the many problems facing Ukraine. The text/photo package also appeared as a gallery on the AP Images blog.
The play was impressive among customers, with some video clients like Deutsche Welle and EuroNews using more than a minute of the footage. The story also received strong reaction among Ukrainian media, as well as from nongovernmental organizations and others. One foundation even reached out to the pathologist who had set up an outdoor morgue, supplying the medic with protective gear, disinfectants and a tent to use outside.