KYIV, Ukraine -- More than 1,000 anti-vaccine demonstrators rallied in the Ukrainian capital Wednesday to denounce coronavirus restrictions, in the second such protest this month.
The protesters, many of them members of radical nationalist groups, gathered outside the parliament building and marched across downtown Kyiv carrying placards reading “Down with anti-constitutional bans!” and “The pandemic of lies!"
The Ukrainian government has required teachers, doctors, government employees and other groups of workers to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 1. It has also begun to require proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results for travel on planes, trains and long-distance buses.
“We are protesting against the compulsory vaccination and demanding (that the government cancels) restrictions,” said Mykola Kokhanivskyi, the protest organizer who leads the OUN Volunteer Movement nationalist group. “The constitution guarantees freedom from medical experiments to every Ukrainian and doesn't require any COVID certificates.”
Ukraine has reported record numbers of infections and deaths, a surge blamed on the slow pace of vaccination. The country has reported over 3.3 million infections and 82,913 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Four coronavirus vaccines are available in Ukraine — Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Sinovac — but only 23% of its 41 million people are fully vaccinated. The Ministry of Health reported that 96% of patients with severe COVID-19 weren’t immunized.
Health Minister Viktor Lyashko said the government has a goal of fully vaccinating at least 40% of the country's adults by the year's end.
The authorities further tightened restrictions Wednesday, cutting the validity of a certificate given after the first vaccine shot from 120 to 30 days to prevent people from delaying getting a second dose. Such certificates are required for access to public transport.
The restrictions have spawned a black market for fake vaccination documents, which sell for the equivalent of $100-$300. A phony government digital app for smartphones is reportedly available, complete with fake certificates installed.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's government has promised every fully vaccinated Ukrainian a payment of 1,000 hryvnia ($38), about 5% of the average monthly wage, but widespread hesitancy remains.
“I will not allow anyone to force me to take drugs containing microchips, undermining health and provoking thousands of illnesses,” one of the protesters, 36-year-old entrepreneur Olena Alkon, said, referring to long-debunked conspiracy theories about vaccines. “I will not allow pharma mafia that invented a myth about the coronavirus to manage my health.”
Speaking at the rally, Yuriy Ovsiykenko, a lawyer, denounced the vaccination as a cover for the “destruction of the Ukrainian nation.”
It was the second such demonstration this month. Following the previous protest on Nov. 3, authorities arrested Ostap Stakhiv, the leader of the anti-vaccine movement. A court ordered him to stay in custody for two months pending trial on charges of trying to destabilize the situation in the country.
Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic