Inna Bilous5 May 2020
Helping vulnerable children in Odesa during the Covid-19 pandemic
A young woman is spearheading an advocacy campaign to help improve the lives of vulnerable children in the Odesa Oblast’ who live in residential homes and to force through implementation of legislation aimed at reforming these antiquated institutions. Now in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Inna Bilous is leading a large-scale volunteer effort that is key to the region’s response to this crisis
Inna Bilous is a social activist with many hats. She is one of the founders of the Manifest Mira NGO based in Odesa, set up after the 2014 Revolution for Dignity in Ukraine and the break-out of war in Eastern Ukraine. She is a campaigner for cultural issues. She is committed to fighting for a better life for vulnerable children in her region. And today she is at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus.
In the initial post-revolution days, Manifest Mira was more focused on assisting internally displaced people and soldiers caught up in this conflict, and they provided them with free accommodation in a hostel in the city centre and in sanatoriums throughout the region.
Over time, Bilous and her colleagues have focused their activities on educational and cultural projects.
Bilous led a campaign to modernise one of Odesa’s most beautiful but dilapidated buildings, the Odesa Fine Art Museum, securing funding for a large-scale project to restore the museum, now once again a popular public space in the city. In recent weeks, the museum was officially recognised as an architectural monument in Ukraine, the culmination of a 5-year campaign led by Bilous and her colleagues.
Bilous has long had an interest in education and children’s issues and as part of their educational programme, Manifest Mira volunteers began providing literacy and coding classes to children in residential homes.
Advocacy for implementation of De-Institutionalisation Reform Plan
It was this experience that led Bilous and her colleagues to the work that now sits at the heart of Manifest Mira: leading the advocacy campaign to force the Odesa authorities to implement the 2017 Ukrainian De-institutionalisation Reform Plan of children’s residential institutions. In the Odesa Oblast’ or Region, this reform will see the replacement of the region’s 46 outdated residential institutions that currently house more than 3,000 children, 320 of whom are orphans, by more appropriate and smaller children’s homes and will ensure that fewer children end up in these institutions in the first place.
The Odesa Oblast’ is one of the few regions in Ukraine where this Reform Plan has not yet been implemented, due both to resistance from local government and oligarchic interests. Odesa has a well-earned reputation as one of the most corrupt regions of Ukraine, and as a port city, the city authorities generally prioritise business issues over socially-oriented projects. There is also little knowledge among the local population about this de-institutionalisation reform and about the reality of life for the children who live in these outdated institutions. Media coverage of the issue has also been opaque. As Bilous see it, this this is an untenable situation.
‘Often these are second-generation institutionalised children’
“When you think of all Ukraine’s economic issues, and how poor in particular the Odesa Oblast’ is, the situation is crazy. 55% of all financial support from Kyiv is invested in education in our region, and 20% of that goes to the upkeep of these outdated residential institutions. There is no money left to improve the lives of the children, and many of them should not even be institutionalised in the first place. Sure, there are some institutions where the majority of the children are orphans, but in many cases, parents just send their children to live in state institutions, and often these are second-generation institutionalised children, so their parents grew up in same places too,” she says.
Over the past three years, Manifest Mira have engaged in a multi-pronged advocacy strategy aimed at all sectors of society, which has included monitoring the situation in the region’s residential institutions, mapping services required by children in these institutions and their families, organising roundtable discussions, and ensuring constant attention in the media about the issue.
Bilous’s research on implementation of the reform in other parts of Ukraine convinced her that coordination between social agencies, the authorities and civil society is essential if the reform is to be successfully implemented. She and her colleagues have also worked closely with the authorities over the past years to try to ensure this is the case. Until recently, Bilous also acted as a volunteer advisor to the Governor of the region.
Covid-19 impact on residential institutions
Today, in the midst of a global Covid-19 pandemic, the Manifest Mira team are now mainly working from home. They are no longer able to monitor the residential institutions, and Bilous is very concerned about the fate of the children in these institutions.
Bilous and a group of volunteers have already raised money from local businesses to buy materials for residential institutions, including masks, disinfectant and basic medicines that they lack, but as she notes, these institutions are typically understaffed, and many of the staff are over 65, and are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.
The pandemic has also had its positive side. Over the past two weeks, over 2,000 children have been sent home from their residential institutions and they are now back with their families; only a small percentage of these children have had to be returned to the state-care system. This shows that in fact de-institutionalisation can happen quickly. Bilous notes that, today there are only around 300 children still in institutions, most of whom are orphans.
However, she worries about the welfare of the children who have been sent home, as there is no way currently of monitoring their health and safety or their access to education. She has already raised this issue with the Ministry. This reflects wider issues among the social services, who even in normal times, are often very slow to act to protect vulnerable children.
Bilous is working from home today when she talks with EED, as she is every day now, combining care of her young children with the role of coordinating volunteers who are responding to the Covid-19 crisis.
Civil-society and business-led response to Covid-19 in Odesa Oblast’
Worried at the lack of leadership shown by the oblast’ leadership in addressing Covid-19
– Odesa was the last region to decide what hospitals would treat coronavirus patients – in mid-March, she and a number of like-minded people set up what they refer to as an anti-crisis operational headquarters, or ‘Odesa vs Covid’, to respond to the crisis. The team includes representatives from business, restauranteurs, lawyers, media professionals and regular citizens of Odesa, all brought together by a determination to help their city.
This civil-society and business-led platform is now playing a central role in procurement of equipment for hospitals, fundraising for materials, coordinating volunteers, providing food for doctors and helping vulnerable people in the region, including pensioners. They have created complex Excel tables of hospital requirements that are updated on a daily basis.
To date, Manifest Mira alone have raised more than 700 thousand hryvna (€24,000) from local businesses and individuals, and many businesses have donated goods and services for hospitals and the vulnerable. Businesses, charities and local authorities have raised a further 300 million hryvna (€10 million) to purchase essential items for hospitals.
The Odesa region currently only has around 240 registered cases of coronavirus, but low testing levels and high prices for private tests mean that real figures are likely to be much higher. A significant issue is that 22% of all registered cases of coronavirus in Ukraine are medical doctors, the highest rate in the world.
“It is a very difficult situation. Hospitals are not able to buy the equipment they need. They have limited budgets and there is a shortage of protective equipment and ventilators in the local market. We also face major issues with corruption and profiteering which complicates matters further. We are now in touch with suppliers from China to secure necessary materials. As civil society, we have taken on the role of supplying hospitals, fundraising to buy this equipment and coordinating volunteers who can help vulnerable members of society and we document everything we do to ensure absolute transparency,” Bilous explains.
The team of Manifest Mira have taken on the central role of coordinating volunteers for the anti-crisis platform – to date they have 480 volunteers who have signed up via a Google form that they developed.
“We launched the form to recruit volunteers, and then we follow up with people to categorise them into different groups. We have different categories of volunteers, from translators, to drivers, to photographers, to food suppliers. Translators are particularly important at the moment, as we are constantly translating documents related to the coronavirus produced in other countries, and making sure that this information is communicated across the region,” she says.
The anti-crisis headquarters also run a popular Telegram channel, where they publish information about the coronavirus and on WHO recommendations, and they have a Facebook page that informs the public about hospital equipment needs and about measures to be taken during this quarantine period to halt transmission of the virus.
Bilous is hopeful that when this crisis is over, Manifest Mira can return to their core work of advocacy. The coronavirus pandemic has meant that they have had to postpone the launch of a photography exhibition highlighting the conditions for disabled children within state institutions, where children lack access to any appropriate developmental programmes and live in highly inappropriate accommodation. She is hopeful that this exhibition can take place later in the summer.