Amid COVID-19 pandemic, Ukraine’s health minister calls people over 65 ‘corpses’

After less than a month in office, Ukrainian Health Minister Illia Yemets has already faced criticism for saying all pensioners will die during the COVID-19 pandemic, a remark many found flippant.

Now, Yemets is again taking heat for speaking disparagingly of people 65 and older and calling them “corpses,” as seniors are the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

The kicker? He’s 64.

In a March 22 interview with the 112 television channel, Yemets was very explicit in his view of how the country should combat the ongoing pandemic.

Yemets said that Ukraine can’t fight COVID-19 alone and should seek help from business and wealthy donors – but that these donors should not spend money on older Ukrainians.

“We know how many people we have over 65,” Yemets said. “I will say frankly that the sponsors who should help us must focus on those people who are still alive.”

“I’m always telling them: Calculate how much money we need to allocate for the living people, not for the corpses.”

Artem Dekhtiarenko, Yemets’ spokesperson, told the Kyiv Post that they are preparing an official response to interpret what the minister actually meant. It’s not the first time Yemets’ press secretary has been forced to issue a public statement explaining the minister’s comments.

In a March 25 video address to the nation, the health minister made more grim predictions. He said Ukraine’s healthcare system wasn’t prepared for the coronavirus, which has killed over 20,000 people worldwide, five of them in Ukraine.

“More people will get infected, I always tell people the truth – more people will die,” Yemets said in the address.

Yemets’ “corpse” remark wasn’t the first time the minister has offended the elderly. On March 13, during the parliament’s health committee meeting, he also didn’t mince words.

“By the way, this virus does not affect children, now all the pensioners will die,” he said in remarks that were widely broadcast on news channels. In response, opposition lawmakers urged the minister to stop talking.

Despite turning 65 in less than a year, Yemets seemingly plans to be around for a long time. According to his official asset declaration, he will need to live 44 more years to pay off the loan he took out to buy a $500,000 house just over a month prior to becoming minister on March 4.

On Jan. 29, Yemets purchased a nearly two-square-kilometer land plot with an elite house on it in Kozin, a village near Kyiv known for its wealthy residents. Yemets paid Hr 12.5 million ($500,000) for this property.

According to his declaration, the sum was lent to him by two businessmen, Yevhen Kubko and Valery Lukomsky. The two are co-owners of a law firm called Salkom.

Slidstvo.info, an investigative journalism project, contacted Kubko, 69, who said that the businessmen agreed with Yemets that he will give them 40% of his income each year to repay the loan.

In 2019, Yemets made a total of $28,000 as head of the health ministry’s Center for Pediatric Cardiology and Cardiac Surgery.

Dekhtiarenko declined to comment on the new house and said the ministry would respond later. He added that Yemets is working very hard to keep the ministry going during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s not the first time Yemets takes charge of the health ministry. In December 2010, Yemets was appointed health minister in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, under ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

After five months in office, Yemets was fired for incompetence.

© 2020 Kyiv Post

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